Updated July 20, 2023 – Who hasn’t woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of a pet leaving a gift on the carpet, bed or floor? If you own a dog or cat – or both – chances are, you’ve had to clean up something your pet has spit up.
Although many pets experience an occasional episode of vomiting, sometimes it can be a sign of a serious health issue or disease. In addition, regurgitation can be mistaken for vomiting. The two are not synonymous and point toward different underlying problems. It’s important for owners to know the difference and know the various causes of vomiting and regurgitation to determine when a trip to the veterinarian is needed and when it isn’t.
Vomiting Versus Regurgitation – What's the Difference?
Many people use the terms vomiting and regurgitation interchangeably, but they're actually considered different processes. The difference boils down to the problem’s anatomic location; esophagus for regurgitation and abdomen for vomiting.
The esophagus is a long tube stretching from the neck through the chest, emptying into the stomach. No digestion takes place in the esophagus, but it’s considered part of the digestive tract. The oral cavity is also part of the digestive system, but most diseases in this area don’t cause either regurgitation or vomiting.
The main parts of the digestive tract are contained in the abdomen and include the stomach, liver, gallbladder, pancreas, small intestine, large intestine, cecum and anus. Problems in any of these areas can result in vomiting. Knowing the anatomy helps understand the signs typically seen when problems occur in a specific area of the digestive tract.
Signs of regurgitation include:
- Passive expulsion of material: Usually a pet lowers their head and material comes out
- No signs of nausea such as lip-smacking or salivation
- Undigested food or other ingested material is common
- Occasionally frothy, foamy material is noted
Signs of vomiting include:
- Nausea and salivation
- Contents can range from undigested to partially digested food, to liquid
- Expulsion is active and contents are often propelled with force
- Presence of bile
While taking a video of your pet can be helpful in guiding your veterinarian toward the best diagnostic tests, owners usually can’t respond quickly enough to catch the pet in the moment (while they are also trying to get their pet off the carpet) or the owner simply isn’t present to witness the pet's actions.
However gross, it’s important to note the characteristics of the material found. This includes:
- The color of the material, paying special attention to the presence of red blood, dried blood (which looks like coffee grounds), bile (which is yellow), or brown, foul-smelling material
- The presence or absence of food and if it's digested or undigested
- The presence or absence of foreign material
- The presence or absence of lots of saliva or foam
Before we move on, we need to take two quick detours.
As many of us know, dogs often don’t chew things 100 times as our grandmothers suggested. They often swallow food, toys and other objects after just a few bites. Occasionally, items are simply too large to pass through the esophagus into the stomach. Dogs with esophageal foreign bodies will salivate a lot, gag, paw at their mouth and retch. They can look a lot like a nauseated dog but their problem is esophageal.
Another problem that shares characteristics of both regurgitation and vomiting are issues associated with swallowing. The act of swallowing is quite complex and can be linked with other diseases that cause gastrointestinal disease. Signs of swallowing disorders include repeated attempts to swallow, food falling from the mouth and gagging.
Is it an Emergency?
This brings us to one of the most common questions heard by veterinarians and their staff – when is vomiting an emergency and when can a pet owner wait and watch?
As mentioned above, esophageal foreign bodies are an emergency. The vast majority of owners either witness their dog (cats rarely eat something too big!) eat something and then start gagging or their dog is so clearly distressed they immediately seek veterinary care.
Other times, owners should seek veterinary care, is if there is blood in the vomitus; if a pet is vomiting and seems depressed, lethargic or has stopped eating; if vomiting, gagging, regurgitating is prolonged and severe; or if vomiting is intermittent but lasts longer than one week. A pet that vomits once or twice and seems bright and alert is one the owner can monitor closely.
Morris Animal Foundation has funded a large list of studies looking for answers to the diverse diseases associated with vomiting in dogs and cats, including viral infections such as parvovirus in both dogs and cats, kidney disease and cancer. But there are still many unanswered questions.
We need your help to find better ways to help our dogs and cats have better, healthier lives. Learn more about the scope of the studies we fund as well as our history and commitment to advancing animal health.