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Stomach issues are the top reason cats are brought to the veterinarian, according to a Healthy Paws analysis of more than 870,000 pet insurance claims from June 1, 2020, to June 1, 2021. For dogs, stomach issues came in third, behind skin problems and pain.

While we know a vomiting pet generally prefers to expel stomach contents on expensive carpets or on your bed in the middle of the night, we don’t always realize what’s causing the problem. So how do you know when it’s something serious?

Causes of vomiting

A broad range of things can cause your pet to vomit, from something as simple as an abrupt change in food or motion sickness from a car ride to more serious causes, such as toxin ingestion, infections like parvovirus or a gastrointestinal foreign body.

Check your house or yard for anything your pet might have accidentally gotten into: medications, mushrooms, the garbage can, super glue and any toys or objects that may have been partially or completely swallowed. Sometimes you may find clues in the vomit, such as potentially toxic house plants that may have been ingested. If you think your pet has eaten something it shouldn’t, call your veterinarian or contact the Pet Poison Helpline at (855) 764-7661.

Mild vomiting

If your pet vomits once or twice and stops, you can remove their food and limit their water for 6 to 8 hours to give the digestive tract a chance to calm down. If they continue to vomit or if they become lethargic, contact your veterinarian.

Although not necessarily recommended, dogs can go for a day or two without eating. However, food shouldn’t be withheld from cats for more than about 12 hours. Cats can develop a condition called hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, and it can be difficult to entice them to eat again. But a few hours without food is typically not a problem.

During this time, you don’t want your pet to become dehydrated. The easiest way to check their hydration is to run your finger over their gums (do not attempt this if your pet is not fond of having their mouth handled). In a hydrated pet, there should be enough saliva so that your finger slides easily. Dehydrated pets will have dry, sticky gums. You can also try to gently pull up the skin at the nape of your pet’s neck. In a hydrated pet, the skin should snap back into place quickly. If your pet is dehydrated, the tent of skin will take longer to return to its original shape.

You can allow your pet to lick ice cubes, so they ingest a small amount of water at a time. Lapping up large amounts of water quickly may cause your pet to vomit. If you’re concerned, contact your veterinarian.

If your pet hasn’t vomited for 6 to 8 hours, you can begin to offer small amounts of water. As a rule of thumb, you can provide 1 teaspoon of water per pound of body weight every 2 to 3 hours.

Once your pet drinks water without vomiting, you can feed them small, frequent meals, using a bland diet such as boiled hamburger or chicken and rice or food made for sensitive stomachs. If your pet refuses to eat or begins to vomit again, call your veterinarian.

Severe vomiting

Some pets will continue to vomit, even when there’s nothing left in their stomachs, and they just wretch up bile. Prolonged vomiting can lead to dehydration, so it’s important to take your dog or cat to the veterinarian. Even if your pet vomits on a regular basis, such as once or twice a week, it’s worth investigating to see if there’s an underlying disease process causing it.

Depending on your pet’s history, signs and physical exam, the veterinarian may order blood work, X-rays and/or other diagnostic tests. Treatment will vary, depending on the cause, but may include surgery in the case of a gastrointestinal obstruction, fluids to correct dehydration, medications to reduce vomiting or other treatments. Hopefully, your pet (and your expensive carpet) will be back to normal in no time.

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The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.