Tips for helping a sick cat

Q: Is it normal for my cat to vomit once a week?

— Claire 

We are getting more and more evidence in cats that chronic vomiting is not “just hairballs” or “he eats too fast.” A recent article in Veterinary Medicine cited a study of 100 cats that were chronic vomiters. Of these 100 cats, only 1 was found to be normal on intestinal biopsy. The other 99 cats had abnormal intestinal walls. Of those cats with abnormal biopsy findings, 49 percent had inflammatory bowel disease and 47 percent had intestinal cancer.

Inflammatory bowel disease has long been known to be a common problem in cats.  

For a large number of these cats, food allergy is the underlying cause. When I see a patient with a history of chronic vomiting, I will often start with a hypoallergenic food trial to see if that helps. In many cases it will.  

We are lucky enough to have a wide variety of prescription manufactured diets available to us. Typically these diets have a unique protein in them (like rabbit or duck) that your cat’s immune system has never seen before.  All manufactured diets have to have preservatives in them, however, so for some cats, a homemade diet is better because the ingredients can be really controlled and preservative free.

Don’t feed your cat a homemade diet however without working with your veterinarian. Cats will get debilitated if they are not receiving the right mixture of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. For example, if cats are not getting taurine, an amino acid, in their diet, they will develop vision loss and a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy.  

My favorite website to direct owners to for making a homemade diet is called balanceit.com. This website sells a mineral powder for home-made diets as well as recipes based on your pet’s unique health condition.

If it is clear that a food change is not decreasing your cat’s vomiting, then intestinal biopsies may be required to diagnose your cat properly.  

In humans, endoscopy is often done as a non-invasive way of looking into the gastrointestinal tract and taking biopsies. Although we have this capability in cats, new research shows that we can often miss a diagnosis with this technique. Endoscopy is nice because it doesn’t involve cutting into the abdomen or into the intestines, but the samples we take are only of the inside of the intestinal tract, and in cats we often need a full piece of bowel in order to make an accurate diagnosis.

If we find that your cat does indeed have cancer, the most common type of intestinal cancer is called lymphosarcoma. The good news is, is that in many cases, this has a very high success rate in terms of treatment.  I have personal experience with cats who have lived several years with an excellent quality of life getting chemotherapy medications at home.  

So Claire, in answer to your original question, I have started to tell owners that if your cat is vomiting more than once a month, it is worth having a conversation about what we know of intestinal disease in cats, and trying a food change at the very minimum to see how your kitty responds to that.

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at drhershey@westgatepetclinicmn.com.