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Why Is My Cat Throwing Up Yellow Liquid? Vet Insights

Sadly, animals can get sick for various reasons, from underlying infections to inflammatory diseases to genetic problems, and even because they eat things they shouldn’t. Once upon a time, veterinarians advised that a cat who threw up occasionally (even weekly) was considered normal. However, cats who vomit regularly often have underlying diseases, and some cats throwing up bile, food, foam, or more can become sick quickly. Knowing how to recognize illness and when to take action if your cat is vomiting may save lives and prevent chronic problems later in life.

What is vomiting in cats?

Vomiting is an active process where your pet will retch (moving its stomach in and out/up and down), and fluid, food, or yellow liquid (bile), among other things, may be expelled. Some cats also vocalize (an unnatural sound) prior to vomiting. Sometimes, this suggests a problem specifically with the GI tract, but there could be numerous causes. It is a warning that should trigger a response. If a cat vomits once but is otherwise healthy and normal, we may do nothing (benign neglect) and see if it resolves without intervention. Other times, we need to intervene.

Regurgitation, on the other hand, is when an animal opens its mouth and food or liquid, even yellow bile, comes out — a passive process that can be mistaken for vomiting.

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Causes of vomiting in cats

Vomiting in cats can occur for various reasons. Veterinarians used to say a hairball monthly or even weekly was normal. However, we now know that this is not the case. Cats who ‘eat too fast and vomit’ or who routinely ‘vomit up hairballs’ often have underlying diseases.

A cat vomiting bile can signify numerous things. It is a clinical sign, not a specific condition. It doesn’t tell the vet the problem; simply, there may be one. Yellow vomit tells us that there is a mixture of bile and fluid from the stomach. The stomach produces acid, and the liver produces bile, which aids in digesting food. The bile normally goes into the intestines, but in animals with foreign bodies, underlying health issues, and gastroenteritis (inflammation in the GI tract), this bile may end up in the stomach. As a result, when your cat vomits, you may see a yellowish-brownish fluid, which may or may not be foamy.

Vomit can be various colors depending on the underlying trigger. While yellow to yellowish-brown usually suggests bile +/- stomach acid, other colors are possible and may or may not help determine the cause.

We can see both acute vomiting (ongoing for less than two weeks) or chronic vomiting (ongoing for over two weeks; this may be once a day, week, month, or just now and again). Though this article speaks primarily to acute vomiting.

Causes of vomiting in cats include both gastrointestinal causes and other disease processes not related to the gut, such as:

  • Foreign body ingestion (some cats do it out of boredom or loneliness; however, many do so because of underlying GI disease), which has the potential to cause life-threatening intestinal obstruction
  • Toxin ingestion (e.g., human medications or ethylene glycol, aka antifreeze)
  • Toxic foods (onions, garlic, chocolate)
  • New foods (human- or cat-specific) or abrupt changes in diet
  • Food allergy or intolerance
  • Plant ingestion (e.g., lily or other toxic plants)
  • Pancreatitis
  • Infections (e.g., panleukopenia)
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Kidney disease
  • Constipation
  • Liver disease (cholangiohepatitis)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Cancer
  • Bilious vomiting syndrome (vomiting on an empty stomach, often upon waking in the morning)

So, while yellow vomit and other colored types of vomit may often be simply a random thing or non-serious issue, it could be the start of something more.

Signs of illness in cats

While sometimes vomiting is the only sign of illness in a cat, and the cat may seem fine, we can see many things that suggest a problem and that your cat should seek veterinary care. These signs may occur with GI disease or other underlying issues.

  • Vomiting weekly or more frequent
  • Lethargy (sleepiness)
  • Changes in behavior, such as hiding more
  • Weakness
  • Drinking more than normal
  • Urinating more or less than normal
  • Blood in the vomit or stool
  • Changes in appetite (decreased, absent, or increased)
  • Diarrhea with or without blood in it
  • Constipation
  • Belly pain
  • Lip licking (a sign of nausea/GI upset)
  • Weight loss
  • Regurgitation

Diagnostics for your vomiting cat

Your veterinarian will want details about your pet's general health and the vomiting. These questions may include but are not limited to:

  • When did the vomiting start? Yesterday, three weeks ago, or when it was a kitten and has been frequent all its life and just worsening?
  • Did your pet receive any new foods (feline or human)?
  • Does your pet have any current medical conditions (such as diabetes, that could be contributing to the vomiting)?
  • Is your pet drinking water? Too much/more than normal? Can your pet keep water down?
  • Is your pet using the litter box normally? What does the stool look like?

In addition to that, your history, physical exam findings, and, ideally, diagnostics help guide therapy and identify the underlying cause. Sometimes, the cause isn't always identified, either because of owner financial constraints, normal test results, lack of access to advanced diagnostics such as abdominal ultrasound, or simply because an owner opts for medical management and the pet recovers. Unless it happens again, knowing the cause may not be necessary if the pet responds.

Standard testing may include bloodwork, radiographs, and a stool sample check for parasites, or a presumptive diagnosis may be made based on history and physical exam findings. Advanced diagnostics for pets who fail to respond to standard therapy or who develop repeat issues with frequent or chronic vomiting, ultrasound +/endoscopy (camera down the throat into the stomach and some of the small intestines), and intestinal biopsies may be warranted.

Treatment for the vomiting cat

Not all cats who vomit need medical attention. A single case of vomiting in a cat with a great appetite, who is playful and still wants to eat, may need a few hours off food and water and then be good as new. However, cats who vomit numerous times in 24 hours can rapidly become dehydrated. Further, older patients and those with underlying medical conditions (e.g., diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, and IBD, among others) are more prone to dehydration and worsening clinical signs. A veterinarian should see these patients.

If you often ask yourself why your cat is throwing up yellow liquid, and if this happens multiple times per day, multiple times per week, and even multiple times per month, please take your cat to your veterinarian. Again, vomiting is not considered normal. A cat could get a hairball, possibly, but that should be once in a blue moon, not regularly.

Frequent vomiting is a sign of underlying illness.

At home therapy

If your cat is vomiting but otherwise seems fine, you may be able to manage the pet at home. Often, they just need a few hours without food (4–6 hours maximum) to give their digestive tracts a bit of a break. Further, frequent, small meals are recommended. That way, the GI is never fully empty.

In cats, eating is more important than what they eat. A cat that doesn’t eat for 24 hours or more can quickly get very sick. The more obese a cat is, the more likely it will develop a serious liver condition (hepatic lipidosis) from not eating even for just a day. So, if you have a picky cat who only eats the same dry food and nothing else, then so be it. Feed that, but regulate it. Offer small portions every 3–4 hours for 3–4 days. If there is no further vomiting after that time, slowly wean back to your normal feeding schedule or leave food out if you do normally.

If your cat isn’t picky, try a bland diet of one-part boiled plain chicken or lean turkey and two-part white rice, though keep in mind that many cats aren’t rice fans. The average cat may need about half a cup total per day divided into smaller meals, though exactly how much is hard to gauge. If you know the calorie content of the food, the average cat needs about 180–200 kilocalories per day. If you do switch your cat’s diet to this bland one, once your cat has had no vomiting for a minimum of 24–48 hours, then you would slowly switch back to the pet’s regular food, slowing weaning down the chicken and rice by 25% and increasing the amount of the regular diet over another 3–4 days.

Besides this, you can also consider a prescription bland diet.

Veterinarian remedies

Cats with acute vomiting who are dehydrated, who cannot keep down any food or water, or who have underlying health concerns require supportive care from your vet. This may include fluids under the skin (subcutaneous-SQ) or veins while hospitalized (intravenous-IV). Additionally, medications to control nausea and vomiting (for example, Cerenia(R) or ondansetron) may be given as an injection in the hospital and orally to go home. If there is diarrhea, additional medications or supportive care may be warranted. Treating any parasites and underlying diseases will also be necessary. Most cases of acute vomiting resolve with therapy and do well. In some cases, further testing and treatments may be needed, for example, surgery to remove a foreign body or a hypoallergenic diet trial for food allergies.

Does pet insurance cover digestive issues?

Does pet insurance cover stomach issues? That depends on what plan you have and who your pet insurance provider is. However, we all know pet care isn’t cheap. Whether your cat has adventures outside or remains a couch potato, routine veterinary care helps keep your pet safe and improves the human-animal bond. While we cannot always plan for every scenario, having pet insurance for all pets can be a lifesaver.

Whether stomach issues like vomiting are covered or not depends on your plan. If you have a cat who vomits chronically and have sought care before getting insurance, it may be considered a pre-existing claim. Make sure you read the fine print carefully. But if you research and choose a comprehensive plan, stomach issues are usually covered. However, if pet insurance isn’t for you, consider putting a few monthly dollars into a rainy day fund, as it may help you down the line.

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11 tips to minimize your pet’s risk of vomiting

While we cannot know 100% of the time what our cats are up to, we can decrease their chances of getting sick.

  1. Never abruptly switch your pet’s diet (unless directed to by a veterinarian). When changing foods, slowly switch from one to another over 5–7 days.
  2. Never give people food, as it is safer to provide cat-specific foods whenever possible.
  3. Never give cats garlic or onions. These are toxic, as are other foods. Feel free to check out the ASPCA website for other toxic foods.
  4. Be wary of plants. Lilies can induce abrupt renal failure, so never keep them indoors. Get your cat to the vet immediately if they chew on a lily plant. Fast treatment saves kidneys and lives. Even non-toxic plants can induce GI upset, so be careful with all plants around cats.
  5. Never leave rubber bands, hair ties, string, ribbon, tinsel, and related items strewn about, as these are common items that cats are drawn to and may ingest.
  6. Along the same lines, always leave medications (human and pets) in safe locations, e.g., closed in a cabinet or drawer.
  7. Always pick up medications, paperclips, other items, and food that have dropped to the floor to lessen the risk of ingestion.
  8. For cats, regardless of lifestyle (indoors or indoor/outdoor), ensure they are on monthly heartworm prevention (as this also provides some intestinal parasite control, lessening the chance of GI illness), or get them dewormed several times a year.
  9. Keep all cats, regardless of lifestyle, current on vaccinations, and make sure to keep up with annual well-visits with the veterinarian.
  10. Ensure you’re feeding food that has not spoiled, is kept in a temperature-controlled environment, and hasn’t been sitting out too long. Wet food, if not eaten, should be pulled up in 1–2 hours to prevent spoilage.
  11. Provide a premium, high-quality, meat-based protein diet with an AAFCO statement confirming its completeness and balance on the label.

You may say, “My cat keeps throwing up but seems fine". However, the fact that your cat keeps throwing up is not normal, and you should take a step back. Try to identify the underlying cause. Did the cat eat something? Was there a new food? Is a new person or animal in the home? It is key to understand that it is not normal if your cat is throwing up bile, has yellow vomit, or brings up food.

While a single episode may be nothing of concern if your cat isn’t eating, throws up bile or other material multiple times a day or week, or has other signs, please seek veterinary care sooner rather than later.

When to be concerned

If your cat is throwing up bile but is otherwise playful, eating, keeping food and water down, and not weak or sleepy, you can watch your pet and see how the cat does. However, seek care if your pet shows any additional signs of illness, stops eating, fails to improve after 12–24 hours, or worsens at any time. If you aren’t sure if your pet needs medical attention, you are better off seeing your vet and having them do basic outpatient care (fluids under the skin and injection against vomiting) and seeing how they do than waiting too long.

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