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second time around: vomiting versus regurgitation

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan


Vomiting is a very common complaint that veterinarians hear. Young or old, cat or dog, I can count on seeing at least a few cases of vomiting pets each week. When a pet is bringing up food or water, it seems like the obvious choice to assume that they are vomiting, but that is not always the case.

The first step in working up a “vomiting” pet is to make sure they are really vomiting. Vomiting versus regurgitation is an important distinction to make, as their causes can be much different. So what’s the difference?

Vomiting is when the contents of the stomach (including food, water and/or bile) are ejected. It is usually accompanied by nausea, drooling and an abdominal effort (heaving). Often, stomach gurgling also occurs.

Regurgitation, on the other hand, involves only the contents of the mouth or esophagus.  Food and/or water or other ingested items do not make it to the stomach before they come back up, and there is no abdominal effort – food or water is simply ejected, often very soon after eating. There may be some coughing or gagging associated with regurgitation, but not the retching we see with vomiting.

It is important to determine if it is vomiting causing the puddle of food on the kitchen floor or if regurgitation is to blame. Without knowing this, it is difficult to get to the bottom of the root problem. 

Vomiting can be caused by many, many things, including:

  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Toxins or poisons
  • Endocrine disease
  • Pain
  • Motion sickness
  • Pancreatitis
  • Delayed gastric emptying
  • And the list could go on and on ...

Regurgitation occurs when there is either an obstruction or weakness in the esophagus.  Foreign objects, strictures, or masses in the esophagus can all cause obstruction.  Diseases that affect the esophageal muscles, like megaesophagus, hypothyroidism and myasthenia gravis, may weaken the muscles enough to cause regurgitation. When esophageal muscles are weakened, they cannot adequately move food into the stomach.

Of course, treatment for either situation (vomiting or regurgitation) will depend largely on the underlying cause. If either is severe enough, dehydration will occur quickly, so usually fluid therapy will be necessary to rehydrate the patient. Patients who are experiencing regurgitation may be at an increased risk of developing aspiration pneumonia, or lung disease that occurs as a result of accidentally inhaling the regurgitated contents, so your veterinarian may suggest hospitalization to keep an eye on the situation. In this case, it helps to have a veterinary pet insurance plan in place that covers both chronic conditions (like multiple incidents of regurgitation) and hospitalization, such as Petplan. 

If your pet is “bringing it up,” pay close attention to her actions before the event. Nausea and retching likely indicate vomiting, but if the event seems to come out of nowhere, regurgitation may be the cause. 

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Comments
Posted by Johanna Sierra
on April 04 2012 14:08

i knew differences but never knew that regurgutation could be that dangerous

Posted by Deanna Pfau
on April 03 2012 12:58

I never knew the difference! This is very helpful info to know, thank you!

Posted by Ann Bausch
on April 03 2012 09:32

I appreciated this article; the distinction between vomiting and regurgitation makes more sense now. Thank you!

Posted by Aegina Barnes
on April 03 2012 01:09

This is very helpful -- I had no idea this distinction existed!

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