Nausea in cats is a very common condition. It can occur on its own or just prior to the act of vomiting. In humans, nausea is also referred to as “feeling sick to your stomach”, “queasy”, or having an “upset stomach,” and is associated with a feeling of discomfort and unease in the stomach. In cats, nausea is harder to define, as animals can’t tell you that they feel unwell. In many instances, it is unclear that there is an issue until the cat vomits. The most common symptoms of nausea in cats are lack of appetite, licking, excessive chewing, hypervocalization (excessive meowing), restlessness, and drooling. Nausea can make cats feel uncomfortable and restless. Some cats will pace around while meowing, while others will lie in the same spot drooling.
Overview of Feline Nausea
Nausea is a nonspecific symptom, which means there are many different possible causes. These causes can include an upset stomach, changes in diet, eating something indigestible (such as plastic or articles of clothing), eating too fast, overeating, eating something that is spoiled or unpleasant, licking something with an unpleasant taste (such as topical flea prevention products), motion sickness, allergies, hairballs, and certain medications. Cleaning chemicals and biological substances not only taste bad but can cause caustic oral burns.
A number of diseases or conditions can also cause nausea in cats, especially disorders of the gastrointestinal system (stomach and/or intestines). Nausea can be secondary to a disease from a different system such as cancer, acute or chronic kidney failure, diabetes, liver problems, or various infectious diseases. This can make the diagnosis of the cause of nausea a challenge.
At one time or another, your pet may have a bout of vomiting following a period of nausea. Vomiting may be a sign of a very minor problem or it may indicate something more serious.
An occasional, infrequent, isolated episode of nausea with or without vomiting is usually normal and not a reason for major concern.
The severity or concurrence of other signs will determine the specific diagnostic tests your vet will recommend. Important considerations include the duration and frequency of the nausea. If your cat vomits once then eats normally with no further vomiting, has a normal bowel movement, and acts playful, the problem may resolve on its own. If nausea and vomiting continue after your cat eats and your pet also acts lethargic or doesn’t want to eat, then medical attention is warranted.
Common Signs of Nausea in Cats
Signs of cat nausea often include:
- Excessive drooling
- Excessive licking
- Excessive chewing
- Anorexia (lack of appetite)
Other signs or symptoms that can be associated with feline nausea may include:
- Dry heaving
- Dehydration due to fluid losses from persistent vomiting, anorexia, and/or diarrhea
- Diarrhea can occur when a generalized gastrointestinal problem exists
- Abnormal behavior or physical abnormalities associated with prolonged vomiting including lethargy (reluctance to move), weakness, abdominal pain, weight loss, blood in the vomit, or other unexpected physical changes. These signs can indicate your pet is having a potentially life-threatening emergency. These signs can be more serious as cats age.
- In humans, some odors can invoke nauseous sensations. The smell of some foods can invoke immediate drooling and nausea in some cats. However, this appears to be less common in animals.
Diagnosis of Cat Nausea
Administering the optimal therapy for any serious or persistent medical condition depends on establishing the correct diagnosis. There are numerous potential causes of nausea and subsequent vomiting and before any treatment can be recommended, it is important to identify the underlying cause and direct the initial therapy towards resolving it. Some problems are minor while others can be caused by severe medical conditions.
Diagnostic measures and tests for nausea in cats may include:
- Searching your home for anything your pet may have ingested or licked or any evidence of vomit. Check the litter box for any signs of smaller urinations or an abnormal form to the stool.
- Thorough physical examination, including abdominal palpation (feeling the abdomen). Your vet will look for signs of pain or an abnormal size or texture to the abdominal organs. They may also do a rectal exam that consists of putting on a glove and gently inserting a finger into the rectum to evaluate for abnormalities, such as mass or evidence of diarrhea. They will likely also do an oral exam by looking in the mouth for any signs of infection, infected teeth, or other abnormalities. A temperature, pulse (heart rate), and respiratory rate will also be done to look for any signs of a fever or other irregularities.
- A review of your cat’s complete medical history and a physical examination. The medical history assessment will most likely include questions regarding vaccination history, diet, appetite, general health, presence and character of vomitus (frequency, progression, presence of blood, duration of vomiting), weight loss, past medical problems, medication history, and presence of other gastrointestinal signs, such as vomiting and/or diarrhea.
- A variety of laboratory tests including a complete blood count (CBC), a serum biochemical panel, and a urinalysis. These tests can help identify problems such as infections, anemia, diabetes, kidney infections, kidney failure, liver abnormalities, and much more. A thyroid test may be recommended in older cats to diagnose hyperthyroidism.
- A fecal examination to diagnose the presence of parasites, infections, or show evidence of blood.
- Plain radiography (X-rays) to evaluate the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines, which helps determine the cause of the vomiting. The liver, kidneys, spleen, and bladder can also be visualized. Some results may lead your vet to have concerns about foreign bodies, which may lead to contrast radiographs.
- Contrast X-rays, which are performed by giving a cat contrast material such as barium or aqueous iodine, followed by radiographs that are taken over several hours to follow the movement of the contrast material as it flows from the stomach into the intestines. This test can show a delay in the transit through the intestinal tract, which can be caused by an obstruction.
- Ultrasonography, which is an imaging technique that allows visualization of cat’s abdominal structures by recording reflections (echoes) of inaudible sound waves to determine the size and shape of abdominal organs, normal intestinal tract motility, and detect changes in the consistency, location, or texture of organs. Ultrasound can evaluate the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, kidneys, bladder, and lymph nodes. Not all veterinary clinics offer ultrasound, therefore you may be referred to a specialty vet hospital.
- Endoscopy, which involves inserting a long flexible tube with a camera at the end into the mouth that passes into the stomach. General anesthesia is required to perform this procedure. Endoscopy can be used to remove foreign bodies in the stomach when surgery is not an option. It can also be used for diagnosis as it allows for examination of the stomach and a portion of the intestine and to potentially obtain gastric or intestinal biopsies of abnormal areas noted during the exam. Underlying problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or cancer can be diagnosed by biopsy samples.
Treatment of Nausea in Cats
Common treatments for cat nausea may include one or more of the following:
- Eliminating the predisposing cause,such as a change in diet, like eating plants, overeating, eating too fast, ingesting chemicals including flea prevention medications, etc. Patients who eat too quickly or overeat can be treated by feeding small portions at a time, sometimes with the use of feeders designed to slow eating.
- Subcutaneous fluids, injectable drugs used to control nausea and vomiting (antiemetics), and a follow-up appointment are used to treat episodes of nausea without other physical abnormalities. A drug specific to treating nausea is Maropitant (commonly known by the brand name Cerenia). This drug comes in both injectable and oral forms. Often, a cat is given an injection and sent home with the oral pills.
- Severe symptoms, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy may be treated with hospitalization. This therapy may include intravenous (IV) fluids with electrolytes for dehydration, 24-hour monitoring, and drug therapy. Treatment is often combined with diagnostic testing to determine the cause of the vomiting.
- Sick cats may require referral to an emergency or 24-hour hospital that offers around-the-clock care. Read about specific instructions in Home Care for the Vomiting Cat.
Home Care for Nausea in Cats
Follow up with your veterinarian for re-examinations of your cat as recommended and administer any prescribed medications. If your cat experiences an inadequate response to prior measures, a further workup may be necessary to determine the underlying cause of the nausea.
Additional home care recommendations for cat nausea include:
- Symptomatic therapy of an episode of nausea includes withholding food and water for three to four hours. If your cat has not vomited by the end of this time, offer small amounts of water (a teaspoon at a time). Continue to offer small amounts of water every 20 minutes or so for as long as your vet recommends.
- After the small increments of water are offered, gradually offer a bland diet food. Small frequent feedings of a bland digestible diet such as Hill’s prescription Diet I/D, Iams Recovery Diet, Purina EN, or Waltham Low Fat are usually recommended.
- Feed homemade meals of boiled rice or potatoes (as a carbohydrate source) and lean hamburger, skinless chicken, or low-fat cottage cheese (as a protein source). Some cats will not eat the carbohydrate portion of this home cooked diet. If this is the case, you can offer just the protein portion of the food.
- IMPORTANT POINT: Only offer small bits of water or food at a time. Some pets will overdrink or overeat and immediately vomit.
- The return to regular cat food should be a gradual process over one to two days. If vomiting continues at any time or the onset of other symptoms is noted, call your vet promptly.
- Medications to reduce stomach acid may be recommended to help soothe the stomach. A common and safe medication frequently used at home is famotidine (Pepcid). For dosage and medication information, go to the Drug Library article on Pepcid. Other acid reducing medications include Ranitidine (Zantac) and Omeprazole (Prilosec).
- IMPORTANT: Only give medicine prescribed by your veterinarian. Some medications for humans and dogs can be toxic to cats.
- While your cat is sick, keep your cat indoors (if he normally goes out) so you can carefully monitor his behavior, appetite, vomiting, lethargy, sleeping patterns, and litter box habits for signs of diarrhea or abnormal urinary patterns. Keeping your cat indoors also prevents access to food outside of their typical diet.
- If your cat is showing any of the clinical signs noted above and the symptoms have been present for more than one day, expect your veterinarian to perform some diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. These recommendations will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs. Your cat needs your help and the professional care and support your veterinarian can provide.
- If your cat is acting sick, it may be best to keep your cat isolated from other pets to reduce anxiety and stressful situations. Create a comfortable room with a climbing tree, soft bed, litter box, food, water, and soft music to create a positive experience. This can also allow you to monitor their appetite, intake, and litter box habits.
Disclaimer: These tips are not intended to replace the advice and care your kitty should receive from a veterinarian. Call, text, or email your vet for additional advice, especially if your cat has underlying health problems, such as kidney disease or failure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or other gastrointestinal issues. Fluid therapy and other treatments may be necessary severely affected pets and those with secondary health problems.
Prevention of Nausea in Cats
To prevent nausea in your cat, special care is required to minimize your cat’s exposure to foreign material (strings, ribbons, yarn, trash, chemicals, etc.), plants, and toxins. Prevent access to potpourri, which can be caustic when licked. You can also protect your cat by keeping them indoors to minimize access to foreign material that may be located outside. If your cat or dog is suffering from nausea as a result of overeating, you should feed smaller meals more frequently. As always, monitor your cat’s appetite, urinations, bowel movements, and activity level for changes. Ensure that you properly apply topical flea medication as directed by the manufacturer. It should be high on the neck in an area that cannot be easily licked.
Always provide plenty of fresh, clean water. Drinking contaminated water can cause nausea in some cats. Sudden food changes can also cause symptoms of digestive upset, such as nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea. When you change foods, it is important to do it gradually. Mix in a little of the new food to your cat’s current diet. Gradually reduce the amount of old food and mix in more of the new food over the course of a week. Ensure you are feeding a high-quality, AAFCO approved cat food.
Routine brushing, combing, and grooming can help prevent ingestion of hair and subsequent hairballs. Routine administration of a commercial type of hairball product (such as Laxatone®) can be easy and help prevent hairball-related problems.
If you believe your kitty is nauseated, seek consultation with your veterinary hospital or search for a local after-hours emergency clinic. We hope these tips help to keep your kitty healthy.