Why Is My Cat Gagging?

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
By Barri J. Morrison, DVM on Jun. 2, 2023
gray tabby cat lying on the floor with his tongue out

Gagging is a natural bodily function that happens when your cat is trying to expel something from their throat. Gagging in cats is common and often the reason you find your cat standing in the middle of your brand-new rug, hunched over, and making a noise as if they are going to vomit. Cats, like people, have a powerful gag reflex triggered anytime something stimulates the back of their throat (larynx).

Gagging can be “productive,” meaning something comes out of the mouth, or it can be “nonproductive”—when the irritant is either swallowed or inhaled back into the body. While hairballs are the most common cause of gagging in cats, gagging can also be indicative of a serious medical condition.

If your cat is gagging more than once or twice a day, call your veterinarian for a checkup to help determine what the cause is and what intervention might be needed.

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What Does a Gagging Cat Look Like?

Gagging is a reflex in the body that allows the cat to quickly reject something they ingested or something that has come up from the esophagus/stomach or the lungs/trachea. Gagging is not the same as coughing, sneezing, or vomiting, but these functions can contribute to a cat having a gag reflex because those acts cause abnormal fluids to be exposed to the throat.

The exaggerated physical posture for gagging is often due to your cat needing to expel contents from their throat. When cat groom themselves they will inevitably swallow some hair, which accumulates in the stomach. When they are ready to get rid of the hairball in their belly, they will sit down low to the ground, extend their neck, and move rhythmically until the hairball is expelled. This bodily motion is purposeful and will not cause your cat to appear panicked (unlike gagging). The main difference from a normal expulsion of bodily fluids and gagging is that gagging is disorganized and hurried. When a cat is gagging, it can also be associated with yowls or vocalizations as well as disorientated movements.

Most of the time, gagging is a response to the feeling of not being able to breathe. This happens when fluids or substances accumulate in the back of the throat where air needs to pass in order to breathe, hence the reason why gagging is more of a frantic act.

Causes of Cat Gagging

Cats can start gagging for a wide variety of reasons that can be harmless or life-threatening. If you cannot immediately figure out what your cat is gagging from, it’s best to immediately take them to the nearest veterinary hospital or emergency room.

Hairballs

Hairballs are the most common cause of gagging in cats. You may notice your cat grooming themselves, which is always accompanied by ingestion of some of the hair. Hair within the stomach cannot be digested like food. When there is a significant amount of hair in the stomach, it can cause your cat to gag and almost immediately expel the hairball.

Hairballs and true vomiting are not the same thing, even though a hairball can be disguised within vomit. In some cases, it can take several episodes of gagging for the hairball to be expelled.

An occasional hairball in cats is considered normal. However, excessive hairballs can be a sign of a health condition such as inflammatory bowel disease, intestinal parasites, overgrooming from stress or behavioral issues, skin disease (excessive shedding and increased grooming), foreign bodies, or food allergies.

If your cat is expelling hairballs often, contact your veterinarian for an appointment. Depending on the underlying cause and degree of severity, your vet might recommend supplements or a diet change.

Nausea

While not common, nausea can cause gagging in cats. Nausea in cats is often accompanied by:

  • Drooling

  • Lip licking

  • Vomiting

  • Retching

  • Excessive chewing or swallowing

  • Vocalizing

  • Restlessness

Nausea is a nonspecific sign, meaning it can be related to many medical issues. It can be triggered by eating table scraps, changing diets, hairballs, constipation, food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, or other medical issues. Nausea can often be managed by medications prescribed by your veterinarian.

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease is relatively common in cats, leading to a buildup of waste products in the bloodstream. This can cause your cat to get nauseated, triggering gagging and vomiting. While most causes of kidney disease cannot be cured, it is manageable with a special diet, medications, or fluids given at home.

Eating Too Fast

If your cat gags while they eat, they might be eating too much or eating too quickly. Especially in multi-cat households, some cats feel they need to eat their meal quickly or another housemate might come along and snag it, leading them to eat too fast.

Gagging in this case might cause your cat to quickly regurgitate or vomit the food they just ate. The kibble is often still intact, since they didn’t chew the food before swallowing.

If your cat is gagging from eating too fast, consider using a slow feeder or an interactive feeder. These special bowls help to slow eating by providing an obstacle within the bowl or a component to open for the food to be ingested. You can also try adding some warm water to the food to make it softer and more digestible. If it’s a competition between cats, consider feeding the cats in separate areas so no one feels rushed.

Ingesting a Toxin

Because domestic cats are small and low to the ground, they often investigate anything they find. Household cleaners and certain houseplants will immediately irritate the mouth and throat and cause a cat to gag. Gagging in cats due to ingesting a toxin is usually just the tip of the iceberg.

Gagging is often followed by vomiting and other serious consequences such as trouble breathing, seizures, or kidney failure. If you suspect your cat ate something toxic, contact the Pet Poison Helpline to determine if they need immediate veterinarian care.

Swallowing a Foreign Object

Cats are curious creatures and will often chew and ingest something they shouldn’t eat. One of the most common items cats will ingest is string. Gagging will then be caused by a piece of material becoming stuck in the belly, causing irritation. It can also be from the string wrapping around the base of the tongue, with the remainder of the string down the esophagus and into the stomach. This will often cause constant gagging and attempts to vomit the foreign material out.

Never try to remove string from a cat's mouth, as this could cause serious damage. Instead, take them to the vet immediately. While some foreign materials might pass through their system and come out in their stool, most materials will cause extreme sickness that may start with gagging.

If you suspect your cat ate something they shouldn’t have, contact your veterinarian. The vet will likely take an X-ray to determine the extent of the ingestion and assess for any blockage or obstruction.

Respiratory Illnesses

Coughing is a reflex to expel something from the lungs or respiratory tract. Coughing in cats is often confused with gagging, but gagging comes from higher up in the throat (larynx).

At times, fluid from the lungs, such as with pneumonia or pleural effusion, travels up to the throat during coughing and causes your cat to gag. Coughing in cats can be a sign of asthma, heartworm disease, heart failure, viral or bacterial infections, inhaled foreign objects, cancer, or a toxic ingestion. If your cat has a persistent, severe, or productive cough, they should be examined by their vet as soon as possible.

Heart Disease

Cats can develop heart disease at any age. In kittens, it is often from a congenital (present at birth) condition or birth defect. Some cats have no signs of heart disease, while others may have a heart murmur and some can be very ill. In cats that are ill from heart disease, they often have fluid in or around the lungs, which causes coughing and gagging.

Lethargy, collapsing, or breathing fast or with an open mouth are also signs of heart disease in cats. Depending on the underlying cause of your cat's heart disease, the condition might be managed with medications and a special diet.

What To Do If Your Cat Is Gagging

Some instances of cat gagging are not serious, while others require a trip to the vet. If you are unsure, contact your veterinarian for guidance.

If your cat is eating too fast or has occasional hairballs, there are some remedies you can try at home to help them. But if your cat is gagging along with vomiting or coughing; may have eaten a foreign object or been exposed to a toxin; or seems nauseated, they should be examined by their veterinarian immediately.

Featured Image: iStock/FaST_9


Barri J. Morrison, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Barri J. Morrison, DVM

Veterinarian

Barri Morrison was born and raised and currently resides in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. She went to University of Florida for her...


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