What is vomiting?
Okay so let’s get started by explaining what vomiting is. Vomiting is the forceful expulsion of the contents of the stomach or small intestine back out through the mouth; this might include undigested food, fluid or other debris. Many of you will no doubt have had first-hand experience of this when you have vomited yourself or watched kids do it. It is quite common for dogs and cats to show certain signs before they are about to vomit. This can range from drooling and licking their lips to barking or meowing and they will sometimes walk around looking for a specific place to vomit. Once you have seen your pet do this, you will very likely recognise this behaviour again in the future.
One of the very important things to note about vomiting in dogs and cats is that it is an active process. By this we mean that the animal puts a lot of effort into the vomiting; they show quite exaggerated movements of the tummy area or indeed even their whole body due to muscle contractions; pet carers often say that the dog or cat almost appeared to be convulsing with waves of movement going across their body! It is important for you to note if this is the case in your pet because your vet will want to know this information. There is another problem called ‘regurgitation’ in which an animal may also bring their stomach contents back up. However, unlike vomiting, regurgitation is a passive process; animals often simply open their mouths and the stuff falls out without any obvious effort. The causes of vomiting versus regurgitation can be quite different and this is why it is important for your vet to know what behaviour your pet showed while they were bringing up their stomach contents.
Why is vomiting bad?
Okay so before we discuss some of the causes of vomiting, it is important to understand why vomiting is bad. Clearly vomiting is an unpleasant experience for your pet. They may well have been feeling nauseous for a while beforehand and afterwards and the act of vomiting is unpleasant as you may know yourself. However this is not the only reason vomiting is bad. When an animal vomits, they obviously lose the contents of their stomach which includes any food they have recently eaten or any water they have recently drunk. This may not be a problem if it only occurs once but especially with multiple episodes of vomiting, your pet will start to become dehydrated and weak and they will also lose important electrolytes such as potassium. If this situation becomes very severe, your pet may become very sick and go into shock. This applies to any animal, or human, regardless of the cause of the vomiting. An animal may be vomiting because of something that is relatively non-serious in itself but become quite sick as a result of on-going vomiting. Another possible consequence of vomiting is that your pet may inhale some of the vomit and develop pneumonia in the lungs leading to breathing difficulties. This is especially a worry in short-nosed or so-called ‘brachycephalic’ breeds of dogs and cats.
What information does your vet need to know?
If you ring your vet practice because your dog or cat is vomiting, some of the information they will find useful to try and assess the severity of the problem includes:
- When did the vomiting start?
- Approximately how many episodes have occurred?
- Can you estimate approximately how much each episode of vomiting contains – for example, in terms of dessert spoons or coffee cups
- What does the vomit look like? Common descriptions include frothy, greeny/yellowy suggesting bile, or containing food material. One important factor to mention is whether you have seen any suggestion of blood in the vomit. Sometimes you can see obvious fresh red blood, other times the vomit may have an appearance of containing ground coffee which represents partly digested blood.
- Other questions include…Is your pet still eating? Is he or she still drinking? Do they tend to vomit straight after eating or drinking or is there a time delay or indeed does the vomiting occur randomly and is not obviously associated with eating or drinking?
- How does your pet seem in himself or herself at the moment? Is he or she still bright and energetic or lethargic and quiet? Are there any other problems such as diarrhoea – if so, is it bloody? Is your pet’s breathing ok?
- Are you aware of anything that your pet may have scavenged or did you feed him or her anything out of the ordinary before the vomiting started?
- Has your pet had any medical problems in the past, especially similar episodes of vomiting, and is he or she on any medications at the moment?
What are the causes of vomiting?
Okay so let’s spend a bit of time talking about the causes of vomiting in dogs and cats and then we will finish the blog by explaining some of the treatment that may be needed. There are a large number of causes of vomiting that vary in terms of how serious they are. Although as we said earlier, any animal that vomits enough, regardless of the cause, can become very ill.
So the actual act of vomiting is triggered by the brain. However the signals that tell the brain to trigger vomiting can come from a wide variety of places in the body. One useful way of dividing up the causes of vomiting is by separating them into ones that primarily affect the stomach or the intestines, versus causes that occur elsewhere in the body, for example in the pancreas, the liver or even the brain itself. Many, but not all, of the causes of vomiting also tend to cause diarrhoea and we will discuss diarrhoea in the next blog in 2 weeks time.
- What we call ‘dietary indiscretion’: this is when your pet either eats something that doesn’t quite agree with him or her, for example because it is too rich or rotten, or they overeat.
- Foreign body ingestion is also a type of dietary indiscretion. It is very common for dogs, especially certain dogs like young Labradors, to eat foreign bodies such as balls, corn cobs, toy items, socks, bones and so on. Sometimes this goes entirely unnoticed by you but in other cases vomiting may occur. Cats may also eat foreign bodies, although it is less common. Fur balls are one common cause of vomiting in cats. Poisoning is another type of dietary indiscretion that can often result in vomiting in both dogs and cats.
- Another relatively common cause of vomiting is as a side-effect of certain medications and especially of so-called ‘non-steroidal anti-inflammatories’ such as carprofen, meloxicam or firocoxib. We discussed these drugs in the context of poisoning in episode 3 of these blogs so please make sure you have a read if you haven’t already.
- Another cause of vomiting is food intolerance or food allergy: this is when your pet is allergic to either their main diet or any other treats that are fed. These pets will usually have diarrhoea too.
- ‘Inflammatory bowel disease’ or ‘IBD’ is another cause of vomiting affecting the stomach and intestines. This is a bit like irritable bowel syndrome in humans and can be very severe.
- Infections of the stomach or intestines can cause vomiting, although you should realise that this is actually quite an uncommon cause. The more severe infections are usually accompanied at some point by diarrhoea, which can be very severe, and examples include parvovirus infection and salmonella. Worms in the intestines can also cause vomiting.
- And one more cause of vomiting is cancer affecting the stomach or the intestines.
In terms of causes of vomiting that do not primarily affect the stomach or intestines, they often involve inflammation for example in the pancreas (so-called pancreatitis), the liver, the bladder and so on. Other causes of vomiting include kidney failure, liver failure and hormonal diseases, and there are a number of other potential causes too. Animals suffering from one of these problems may show other symptoms in addition to the vomiting that relate to the particular problem; so for example if the primary problem affects the liver they may be jaundiced, that is having a yellow discolouration of the gums, skin or whites of the eyes, or if the primary problem affects the bladder, they may strain to urinate.
How is vomiting treated?
Right so now that we have considered some of the causes of vomiting, let’s talk about the treatment that may be needed. The main thing to realise is that there are really two aspects to this treatment and our job, working with you, is to figure out to what extent each of these aspects is required for your particular pet. The first aspect is what we call ‘symptomatic and supportive care’. This is basically care that your pet may require depending on how severely he or is she vomiting and for how long the vomiting has been going on. You will remember that we mentioned earlier how vomiting can cause problems such as dehydration and weakness. In terms of the symptomatic and supportive care that may be needed, this can range from no treatment being required to your pet being sent home with treatment for you to give to your pet being admitted to the practice for a fluid drip into a vein and other treatments and tests. The extent of this type of ‘symptomatic and supportive care’ required is dependent on the individual pet rather than the specific cause of their vomiting.
It is worth mentioning at this point that there are a small number of drugs that have been used in dogs and cats to try and directly stop the vomiting. These drugs are called ‘anti-emetics’. For the most part they are not actually licensed for use in dogs and cats but have been used safely on many occasions. They often make the animal feel better and appear brighter in part because they may also treat any nausea present. However it is crucial to realise that there are some occasions in which the use of such drugs is not considered safe or the best course of action and therefore your vet may decide not to administer one of these drugs. Other drugs that are sometimes used with or without an anti-emetic include stomach protectants and antacids.
The second aspect to the treatment your pet requires is more specifically aimed at the cause of their vomiting and ultimately this is the best way to stop the vomiting for good. In some cases it may be enough just to withhold food from your pet for example for 12 to 24 hours after consulting your vet practice for advice. Water however must be readily available throughout although it can help sometimes to manage your pet’s drinking by offering a small amount of water frequently rather than one big bowl that they may gulp in one go and worsen their vomiting. It is essential not to withhold water and if your pet vomits after drinking water then we would very much recommend that your consult your vet practice. In general we would only recommend withholding food for a short period for those animals that have vomited a small number of times, that remain relatively bright and that can keep water down. These animals should still be monitored carefully at home and should improve quite quickly. For more severely affected animals or those showing signs of weakness, depression or changes in breathing, it is better to be seen as soon as possible.
If withholding food is recommended, after the 12 to 24 hour period you can then start to feed your pet little and often for a couple of days or so to make sure the vomiting has resolved; bland low-fat foods such as boiled chicken or fish with boiled rice or pasta work well and feeding plain cottage cheese for example can also be helpful.
In a number of cases this sort of treatment at home will either not work, that is the vomiting will continue, or your pet will already be too unwell and your vet will recommend a consultation at the practice. Once they have obtained more information from you and had a chance to examine your pet, they can make a recommendation about the next best step both in terms of how much of the ‘symptomatic and supportive care’ we discussed previously is required, and also whether they feel that it is necessary to do some tests to try and diagnose the cause of your pet’s vomiting. In some cases it will be necessary to do urgent tests because your vet is very worried about your pet, in other cases these tests can be done more slowly over a period of days or even weeks. It will all depend on your individual pet. The most important decision that your vet will want to make initially is whether they think your pet is vomiting because of a cause that needs surgery to be performed urgently; such causes include obstruction or rupture of the intestines due to a foreign body. Your vet may want to take x-rays or do an ultrasound in order to help them make the decision whether your pet needs surgery or not. Sometimes endoscopy is also used; this basically involves feeding a video camera through your pet’s mouth down into the stomach and intestines under a general anaesthetic.
Okay so that brings us to the end of this PercyPods Pet Emergency blog on vomiting in dogs and cats. As you can see, there are a large number of causes of vomiting. It is not uncommon for some animals to have very short bouts of vomiting that are basically nothing to get too concerned about; for example, my last cat was long-haired and used to vomit fur balls from time to time, which we both just got used to! Some animals vomit for example once a month for their entire lifetime! However at the other end of the spectrum, some vomiting patients have very severe and potentially life-threatening disease. In general it is recommended that you consult your veterinary practice if you are at all worried about your pet vomiting.
We hope that you have found this episode useful and learned a little about vomiting in dogs and cats. The next blog will be in approximately 2 weeks time when we will talk about diarrhoea and as mentioned many of the causes of vomiting also often cause diarrhoea. Before we sign off just to remind you that you can contact us in various ways. Via email on firstname.lastname@example.org; via the PercyPods Facebook page; or via Twitter on @PercyPods. We would really love to hear your comments on this blog as well as suggestions for future topics. Also don’t forget to subscribe for future episodes via the RSS feed and that these blogs are also available as audio podcasts. So thank you for reading and until next time, may you and your pets be safe.