Dry Heaving in Cats: A Practical Guide

Is your feline friend repeatedly dry heaving, leaving you puzzled and concerned? Cat dry heaving can be more than just a hairball issue; it may signal underlying health problems. I learned about this personally when my Maine Coon cat started dry heaving violently last year.

Reasons for dry heaving range from hairballs to dietary issues to more serious underlying health issues, and there are both at-home noninvasive and veterinarian treatments. Tons of preventative strategies exist too, that depend on the underlying issue.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore more into what cat dry heaving is, talk more about various causes such as stress or kidney disease, and provide practical treatments and finally, prevention.

What is Dry Heaving in Cats?

Dry heaving is almost akin to the motion of vomiting, but with a twist – nothing comes out. Your cat might display coughing and gagging, a retching motion, and visible abdominal pain or restlessness.

This repeated involuntary contraction of the stomach muscles and signs above combined can point to what we commonly term as dry heaving. You can see in the video above of my poor cat going through those motions!

What Causes Dry Heaving In Cats?

Dry heaving is a common but concerning phenomenon for many cat parents. I know it can look distressing, and you may be left wondering why it’s happening. Let’s cover some of the potential causes, ranging from the mundane to the more serious.


A common cause of dry heaving in cats is hairballs. As cats groom themselves, they ingest hair, which can sometimes form a mass in the stomach. Your cat may attempt to expel this hairball through retching, leading to dry heaving. If there are no hairballs, it could be a sign of something more serious.


Nausea can cause your cat to dry heave, and it might be the result of dietary issues, reaction to a new food, or be a symptom of many illnesses. Nausea usually leads to a loss of appetite, so if your cat is not eating their food, you should monitor closely for any other issues that start to occur.

Foreign Body in the Stomach or Throat

Cats are curious creatures, and they might ingest something they shouldn’t. A foreign body in the stomach or throat can create a sensation that causes them to dry heave. If you ever notice your cat with a distended abdomen and dry heaving, it might be a foreign body swallowed.

For intestinal blockage situations, immediate veterinary attention is required ASAP.


Gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the stomach and intestines, can lead to dry heaving. This condition might arise from infections, parasites, or spoiled food. A dry heaving cat after finished eating may be an indicator of this.

Acute gastroenteritis often needs no treatment, and passes after the offending matter passes or is vomited out.

But despite your cat acting normal otherwise, it’s still smart to call your vet, especially if symptoms persist, as there may be underlying causes that require medical intervention.

Consult with your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment. Note that gastroenteritis differs from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), where the most common symptoms are recurrent vomiting and diarrhea. 

Respiratory Illness

Dry heaving may be mistaken for coughing in cases of respiratory illness. Conditions like asthma or bronchitis can cause similar symptoms. A veterinarian will be able to differentiate between the two and prescribe the right treatment.

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease is a more serious underlying cause of dry heaving. It might present along with other symptoms such as weight loss, increased thirst, and changes in urination. If you suspect kidney issues, a veterinarian’s care is essential.

Keep on the look out for dry heaving with heavy contractions and spitting up white foam – this is sadly a pretty solid symptom of kidney disease. I learned this recently with my Maine Coon, who goes to the vet every few months for an anti nausea shot.

Liver Disease

Liver disease in cats can manifest through dry heaving, accompanied by other signs like jaundice or a decrease in appetite. This is a serious condition that requires immediate professional attention. 

Heart Disease

Heart disease may cause dry heaving in cats due to fluid buildup in the lungs. This complex and severe condition needs to be diagnosed and managed by a veterinary professional.

How Do You Help a Cat Dry Heaving?

Dry heaving in cats can be concerning for sure. Luckily, there are several treatment options that can address this issue, ranging from simple at-home remedies to more specific medical interventions. Here’s a guide to help you understand how to approach the treatment of dry heaving in your feline friend.

Noninvasive At-Home Treatments

For mild cases or initial signs of dry heaving, you may find these noninvasive at-home treatments to be helpful:

  • Withholding Food: Temporarily withholding food for 12-24 hours can give your cat’s upset stomach a chance to settle. Make sure to consult with a veterinarian before taking this step.
  • Providing Fresh Water: Always ensure that fresh water is available, especially if withholding food. Keeping your cat hydrated helps in recovery.
  • Offering Bland Food: After the fasting period, introducing bland food in small quantities can help ease your cat back into their regular diet. Boiled chicken or special prescription diets from the veterinarian may be suitable.

Medical Treatment Options

If at-home treatments don’t resolve the issue or if you suspect something more serious, medical interventions for broad health issues may be necessary:

  • Antinausea Medication: Your veterinarian may prescribe antinausea medication to alleviate the dry heaving. This must be done under professional guidance to ensure proper dosage and administration.
  • Veterinary Examination: A thorough veterinary examination may reveal underlying causes like kidney disease, liver issues, or foreign objects. Specific treatments can then be tailored to these conditions like an x-ray or endoscopy. 
  • Ongoing Care for Chronic Medical Conditions: If dry heaving is related to a chronic condition, ongoing care, and specific treatments such as special diets or medications may be required.

The above treatments offer an overview of how you might address dry heaving in your cat, but it’s essential to consult with a veterinarian for personalized recommendations. They’ll conduct a thorough physical examination and may run tests to determine the underlying issues.

Preventing Dry Heaving in Cats

Since dry heaving can be caused by various factors, preventative measures should encompass different aspects of your cat’s lifestyle, diet, and health. 

Regular Grooming to Prevent Hairballs

One of the common causes of dry heaving is hairballs. Regular grooming, especially for long-haired breeds, can minimize the amount of loose, dead hair your cat ingests, reducing the likelihood of hairballs forming.

Specialized brushes and grooming techniques can make this process even more effective. Signs of an impending hairball for my cat include a lack of appetite and lack of energy. 

Careful Diet Management

Feeding your cat a species-appropriate diet with wet food can prevent many gastrointestinal issues, including nausea and gastroenteritis, that may lead to dry heaving. Gradually introducing new foods and monitoring for any adverse reactions can help in this area.

Supervise and Cat-Proof Your Environment

Cats may ingest foreign objects out of curiosity. By supervising your cat and cat-proofing areas where they roam, you can minimize the risk of them swallowing something they shouldn’t. Remove small objects that could be swallowed and keep toxic substances out of reach.

Regular Veterinary Checkups

Regular veterinary checkups can catch potential problems before they lead to dry heaving. Kidney, liver, and heart disease can be managed more effectively if caught early. A veterinarian can also guide you on the best diet, exercise, and care routine for your cat’s specific needs.

Consider Your Cat’s Respiratory Health

If respiratory illness is the cause of dry heaving, consider factors in your home that might affect your cat’s respiratory health. This includes avoiding smoking around your cat and ensuring they have fresh air in a clean environment.

Medication and Specialized Care When Needed

In some cases, preventive measures might include medication or specialized care. If your cat has a history of certain diseases or conditions, ongoing treatment and adherence to the veterinary care plan can prevent recurrence and subsequent dry heaving.

Stress Management

Cats can experience stress just like humans, and this stress may manifest in various physical symptoms, which can lead to dry heaving. So addressing stress is an integral part of preventing dry heaving in cats.

Things I like include a regular diet, consistent environmental adjustments, regular veterinary care, or extra playtime all helps destress your cat!

When Is Emergency Care Is Needed?

Dry heaving in cats may often be a minor concern, but there are situations when it can indicate a more serious underlying problem. Recognizing these signs and responding promptly is essential for your cat’s well-being.

Here’s when dry heaving in cats should be treated as a veterinary emergency requiring urgent care.

  • Persistent and Prolonged Dry Heaving: If dry heaving continues for an extended period without any apparent reason, it could be a sign of a more serious issue.
  • Presence of Other Symptoms: Watch for other signs like lethargy, difficulty breathing, pale gums, or collapse. These symptoms combined with dry heaving may signal an urgent medical problem.
  • Suspected Foreign Object Ingestion: If you suspect that your cat has ingested a foreign object that might be stuck in its throat or digestive tract, immediate veterinary care is required.
  • Visible Distress: Cats may hide their pain, but if your cat appears to be in visible distress, pacing, or vocalizing along with dry heaving, it’s a cause for immediate concern.
  • Known Underlying Health Conditions: If your cat has known underlying health conditions, like heart, liver, or kidney disease, dry heaving could be an exacerbation of these problems requiring emergency attention.
  • Rapid Onset: If dry heaving begins suddenly and intensely, it could be a sign of an acute issue that needs immediate veterinary assessment.

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