Is Your Pet Vomiting or Regurgitating?

Author: Jason Nicholas, BVetMed

Published: January 24, 2016

Updated: June 6, 2021

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vomit vs regurge sick dogVomiting: One of the most common reasons pets visit their veterinarian

Lots of cats and dogs vomit, right? In fact, so many do it that vomiting is one of the most common reasons why people bring their pets to the vet. But did you know that “vomiting” isn’t always vomiting? It’s true, that isn’t a typo.

“Vomiting” isn’t always vomiting — sometimes it’s actually regurgitation (or, as it’s more affectionately known, “regurge”) — and knowing the difference can be quite important.

Vomiting and regurge may look the same, but they are two very different processes and they are medical signs of two very different sets of potential problems in both cats and dogs. There are ways, albeit, sometimes subtle to tell the difference between the two. Knowing the difference can help you determine what your next steps should be. Also, your vet will be super impressed if you show up knowing the difference! So read on.

Vomiting and Regurgitation: What's the difference?
cat and dog vomiting or regurge

Vomitting: An active process. It's the forceful ejection of material from the stomach or upper part of the intestines. It is an active process, typically accompanied by retching and contraction of the abdominal muscles. And you often get a "warning" before it happens with that “wake you up out of bed” noise before they spew. It's often, though not always, accompanied by signs of nausea (e.g., lip licking, increased saliva, anxiety). Vomit may also contain bile (green) or digested food.

Regurgitation: A passive process. Regurgitation, is typically a very passive process. There really isn’t often any noise associated with regurge, it’s much more stealthy — quietly occuring and often only discovered when you step in the results. In cases of regurge there really aren’t any contractions of the abdominal muscles, and there typically aren’t any signs of nausea. Rather a cat or dog just lowers their head and out falls the food or other material — again, very passive.

The Difference Between Vomiting and Regurgitation: Why should I care?

Where vomiting typically indicates a problem with either the stomach or intestines, or even a non-GI system (see list below) within the body, regurgitation predominately points to a problem specifically with the esophagus (the muscular tube that connects the mouth to the stomach). So, differentiating vomiting from regurgitation is important because they point to a very different set of potential problems. Below are some (partial) lists of problems that can cause vomiting and regurgitation in cats and dogs:

Vomiting causes:
  • Stomach or intestinal ulcers, inflammation, or obstruction (including linear foreign body obstruction in cats)
  • Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
  • Kidney disease (infection, stones, obstruction)
  • Liver disease (inflammation, infection, tumors)
  • Medications or supplements being given
  • Pain (anywhere within the body)
  • Increased pressure within the skull (tumors, swelling from trauma)
  • Hormonal disorders (Addison’s disease, Hyperthyroidism, out of control diabetes/DKA)

Regurgitation causes:

cat vomit vs regurge
If your cat or dog is bringing up food, water, or other “material” more than once per week — regardless of whether it’s vomiting or regurgitation — it’s time for a visit to your veterinarian. They can help you get to the bottom of what’s causing the problem. And, might I suggest… rather than counting on your cat/dog to have one of their vomiting or regurge episodes in the exam room, try capturing a short video of one of the episodes on your smartphone or video camera. Then bring that video with you to your vet appointment — it’ll help you and your vet figure out what’s going on, and it sure beats you having to play a game of “vomiting vs. regurge charades!”

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