Our cats entertain us, bring us comfort, and keep us on our toes. But when they wake us at night hacking up hairballs, their charm seems less obvious. Hairballs are a common reason why cats throw up, but there are more serious causes. And what about diarrhea – is that just a carpet calamity, or a sign your cat needs a check-up? It can be tough to decide if a vet visit is necessary. Here we explore the warning signs that vomiting or diarrhea may warrant a trip to the vet.
Vomiting or diarrhea can occur due to a wide range of medical issues. A healthy cat who vomits a hairball once a week may just need more frequent brushing. Similarly, a cat who develops some mild diarrhea after a diet change, but is eating, drinking, and full of pep, can hold off on a vet visit. When vomiting or diarrhea becomes more frequent or fails to resolve after a few weeks, it’s time to pull out the pet taxi. This doesn’t need to be a midnight trip to the emergency clinic. For an otherwise healthy cat, make an appointment with your vet during normal office hours.
But what if a cat who is not a “regular ralpher” throws up several times in row? What should you do if your cat seems lethargic and suddenly squirts out something ominous from the backside? There are many causes of sudden onset of vomiting or diarrhea, and some are truly emergencies.
Toxin and foreign object ingestion are two of the most urgent causes of vomiting or diarrhea. Common toxins include plants, antifreeze, medicines, and household cleaners. Certain plants and flowers, most notably lilies, are highly toxic to cats. Check the vomit for plant bits, and survey your home (outside too if applicable) for toxic plants. Investigate the environment and kitty paws for any chemicals. If your cat just started a new medication, or if they may have found a stash of pills or topical medication, give your vet a call immediately.
Cats love to play with string, yarn and ribbons. Unfortunately they also like to chew these. Because strings can anchor under the tongue or in the stomach, they can cause a “sawing” effect in the intestines. Elastic hair bands, toys, and even large hairballs can also cause obstruction or severe ulceration. If you find a partially chewed object, or your cat has access to ribbons, trade your slippers for sandals and make the trip to the vet right away.
Vomiting and diarrhea may also occur due to ongoing problems that worsen such as intestinal parasites, heartworm disease, bacterial infections, and feline viral infections. Any of these infections can lead to weight loss, anemia (check for pale gums), lethargy, and change in appetite.
Middle-aged to older cats may develop systemic illness. Chronic kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and diabetes all affect cats. These can cause weight loss, increases in thirst and urination, appetite changes, unkempt coat, and lethargy. Any of these signs warrant a visit to the vet for an appointment. Pancreatitis and gallbladder disease cause pain as well as gastrointestinal signs. Lethargy and these signs should be Kitty’s ticket to see a vet immediately.
Other causes of weight loss, chronic vomiting or diarrhea, and poor coat include inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and cancer of the bowel or organs. A veterinarian will examine your cat, run tests, and recommend further diagnostics such as an intestinal biopsy to help make the diagnosis. Chronic constipation can lead to vomiting and sometimes bloody liquid diarrhea. This is uncomfortable and must be managed with a vet. If your cat has stool backed up, they may need an enema and ongoing management.
Some cats cannot tolerate certain food ingredients, due to allergy or sensitivities. If you’ve changed food recently, a vet may be able to recommend a better choice. You can try switching back to the usual brand first to see if the signs resolve within a couple weeks. A cat who completely stops eating is at risk for severe liver disease, and should be seen right away regardless of other signs.
If you suspect plant, toxin, or medication ingestion a quick trip is especially critical. Ongoing vomiting or diarrhea in an otherwise stable cat who is still eating and drinking, and producing urine and stool, can usually wait until the next available appointment. A change in diet or stressful event such as a car ride or boarding can trigger a self-limiting bout of the belly blues in an otherwise healthy cat. If you are unsure if a vet visit is needed, it never hurts to call. The veterinary team can advise you whether your cat’s overnight tummy trouble is an emergency, or if you can observe them at home while you clean the carpet and brew yourself some coffee.