Vomiting is pretty common in kittens. Some of the causes are fairly harmless; some are more serious. Let’s look at several common causes.
Kittens and Foreign Objects
Kittens are like small children–curious and unafraid to investigate. As your kitten becomes mobile, his innate curiosity leads him to investigate his new surroundings. He looks for moving objects, especially ones he can put in his mouth. (I suspect much of this behavior is related to a kitten’s inborn hunting instincts, with some kittens more prey-oriented than others.) It won’t be long before your kitten swallows something inedible. This is the main cause of vomiting in kittens.
Hopefully, vomiting is productive in propelling the object right into the center of the Persian rug. You’ll probably be left with a stain thanks to a bit of stomach juice that comes up with it, but your kitten will be none the worse for wear.
This can turn into a serious situation if the object moves through the stomach into the small intestine and gets lodged. If the object becomes lodged, vomiting will occur every few minutes to hours, and your kitten will get weaker and weaker. Anything he eats will come back up immediately.
If you suspect you’re dealing with a lodged object, it’s time to seek professional help. Your veterinarian will examine the kitten and take x-rays. If the offending object is not seen (as often happens), barium will be given and more x-rays taken. If there is an obstruction, the barium will stop at the site, signaling the need for surgical intervention.
Plants and Young Cats
Kittens must think they are part cow the way they try to eat household plants. Much of this interest is due to the simple fact that plants move when the kittens “attacks,” bringing out your kitty’s hunting instincts. During these attacks, their razor-sharp teeth slice through stems and leaves, which end up being swallowed. Grass is especially interesting to the kitten not only because it moves, but also because it tastes good.
However, plant parts, especially the stems of grass, are very difficult to digest and are quite irritating to the stomach lining. Within a few minutes, the plant material is vomited up. This is actually a good thing (except for the Persian rug, again) because the cat does not need the carbohydrates in plants and because they will also irritate the lining of the small intestines. Even obstructions with grass have occurred. I tell my clients that until their cats grow four stomachs like cows, they should leave the plants alone.
Furthermore, certain plants can be toxic to cats. Easter lilies and other members of the lily family are especially toxic. Within a few hours of eating almost any part of the plant, but especially the pollen, kittens experience kidney failure. They quit eating and become reclusive. They seek water, but it causes vomiting.
If they are treated quickly, they can be saved. If not, it can be fatal. Therefore, it is important to check the kitten’s surroundings before seeking professional care. The veterinarian needs to know if the kitten has an interest in plants and if lilies or other household plants are in the kitten’s environment. This information will help the veterinarian to realize that this situation is more than simple kitten curiosity, and rather a true medical emergency.
Viruses that affect Kittens
Certainly, there are other causes of vomiting that don’t stem from kittens trying to eat things. The most common viral cause is panleukopenia, formerly called by the misnomer “feline distemper.” It is most commonly encountered in shelters and other places where there are a large number of kittens.
If you acquired your kitten from a multi-cat environment just a few days ago, and he is now vomiting, seek veterinary help quickly. Panleukopenia is highly contagious and often fatal.
Fortunately, panleukopenia vaccine is available and very effective. The first dose should be given when the kittens are 6 to 8 weeks old. It should have been given before your kitten was adopted from the shelter; however, it is needed every 4 weeks until it is about four months old. Be sure to check your kitten’s vaccine history and get those life-saving shots when they are due.
Another cause is feline leukemia virus (FeLV). This virus is a bit misnamed. It causes leukemia, or cancer, of the blood, but it causes many other diseases because it also attacks other organs. The virus is easily transmitted from mothers to their kittens either before they are born or through the mother’s milk.
Kittens do not show any signs of disease during first few weeks after infection. They nurse normally, and they grow like a kitten should. However, their pleasant way of life changes in a few weeks to a few months. Their appetite wanes, and they quit growing. They lose interest in their littermates and no longer seek your attention. Vomiting may occur if the stomach or intestines are attacked by the virus. Unfortunately, there is no cure for an FeLV infection.
Fortunately, this is another disease that can be prevented with vaccine. The first dose is given at about 8 weeks of age, but this will be too late for the kitten that is infected from his mother. A second dose of vaccine is given about four weeks later, which offers good protection until the booster is due in one year.
Last, but not least, in our parade of causes of vomiting in kittens are worms. There are several types of worms that can cause vomiting. The most common in kittens is the roundworm, also known as an ascarid. It is transmitted from mother to kittens and is supposed to live in the small intestines. However, if there is a bumper crop of roundworms, some will move into the stomach and cause vomiting. And the kitten expels one or more worms right on that Persian rug. The worms are about 1/8 of an inch in diameter and 3- to 5-inches long, and their white bodies curl into circle, thus the name roundworms. They are easily killed with the typical deworming medications given to kittens.
Another very disgusting worm is the tapeworm. It lives in the small intestine and can also go on a vacation to stomach-land. When it does, the kitten finds the Persian rug again. This worm is not really that harmful to the kitten, but the grossness factor is very high. Most owners are totally freaked out when they see tapeworms. Though gross, these parasites are easily killed with deworming products that are often routinely given to kittens. Because they are transmitted through fleas, control of these tiny skin crawlers is the key to preventing another tapeworm infection.
Dr. Gary D. Norsworthy has been in private practice for over 40 years — 25 in small animal practice and 17 in feline practice. He is the owner of Alamo Feline Health Center in San Antonio, Texas, which hosts externs from veterinary schools across North America and from other countries. Dr. Norsworthy is a charter Diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners in the Feline Practice Category and an Adjunct Professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Mississippi State University and the Western University of Health Sciences. He was chosen for the 2009 Practitioner of the Year Award in the Medical Specialist category by the Texas VMA and the Small Animal Educator of the Year from the 2014 Western Veterinary Conference.
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