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Why Do Cats Gag? For a multitude of reasons!

The sound of a cat gagging can be alarming and is one that invokes an immediate response from owners. Cats often gag violently and loudly for a short time and then carry on as if nothing has happened. Why do they do this?

Cats often gag reflexively when something unexpectedly touches the back of their throat. Invariably the cause of gagging is the cat’s own fur which it has swallowed whilst grooming. However, occasionally there are other reasons why a cat gags that can require its owner’s intervention. Be prepared!

A ginger and white gag about to gag.

It is normal for cats to gag occasionally and don’t be surprised if a cat gags and then vomits. Cats gag quite readily and more than other pets and gagging can occur more frequently in some cats than others.

If your cat gags but doesn’t throw up, this is perfectly normal – just be relieved that you don’t have a mess to clear up.

We explore the most common reasons why cats gag.

Cats gag when something touches their throat

A cat’s gag reflex is well-developed and will respond instantly to the physical stimulation of its throat by something unusual or unexpected.

Gagging is a natural response to prevent anything potentially harmful from being ingested. A cat’s fur is a common culprit that triggers its gag reflex.  

In addition to gagging, a cat will extend its neck, open its mouth wide, and swallow a few times. Nothing is usually vomited up in this case, although it certainly sounds as if something is going to be.

If gagging such as this becomes persistent, don’t just assume it’s not a problem – take your cat to the vets.

Why cats gag when they smell food

A cat that looks shocked about its food.

Just like us, cats can gag if they are offered food they dislike the smell of.

A cat’s olfactory system has a sensory area known as the vomeronasal organ (VNO) or Jacobson’s Organ, located between its nose and the roof of its mouth. This allows it to process smells through its mouth as it prepares to eat.

If the food on offer smells bad, a cat will recoil from the dish and use its tongue to divert the smell towards its throat whilst also gagging.

How fur leads a cat to gag

Cats are typically meticulous self-groomers. Exceptions to this rule do exist, but untidy cats are uncommon. One negative result of a cat’s dedicated grooming habits is the possibility of hairball formation.

Cats have barbed tongues. If your cat has ever licked you, you will know that its tongue feel quit rough. When a cat is grooming, its tongue barbs remove loose fur which can be ingested.

Swallowed hair generally passes safely through a cat’s digestive system and is eliminated in its feces.

Occasionally hair is not eliminated in this manner. Instead, it builds up in the cat’s stomach and is vomited up as a hairball (which is actually more like an elongated sausage than a ball).

Vomiting hairballs involves a fair amount of gagging and retching. How often has this sound jolted you from a deep sleep and had you leaping from your bed in an attempt to move the cat to a washable surface?

Sometimes a cat is unable to regurgitate a hairball. The cat will continue to gag and retch in an effort to expel the offending mass, but there will be no sign of it.

If you suspect your cat is gagging as a result of a trapped hairball, take it to the vet if no hairball is passed and the gagging continues.

Hairballs are more of an issue in cats who overgroom and this leads to regular gagging. Anxiety and allergies are just two reasons why cats overgroom.

The ideal way to lower the instance of grooming-related gagging is to regularly brush your cat to remove as much loose fur as possible.

A cat gags when something is stuck in its teeth

A black and white cat with a piece of string.

A variety of objects can become trapped in a cat’s teeth.

Cats should not be given bones, but they are instinctive hunters and if they catch a small creature with bones, it is easy for one of these to get stuck in its teeth.

A cat will paw at its mouth and possibly gag as it tries to remove a trapped bone.

Pieces of toys can also wedge in a cats teeth and cause the same reaction.

Speaking from experience, it is difficult to get a cat to let you remove anything stuck in its teeth and it tends to run away from you. It may be easier with the help of another adult.

If you are unable to free an object from a cat’s teeth, it’s time for a trip to the vet.

Ingesting foreign objects and cat gagging

When cats swallow something inedible, they can gag because of the resulting gastric irritation. Additionally, if the foreign item is something such as a piece of string or yarn, it may become stuck partially in their throat as well, further triggering your cat’s gag reflex.

If your cat has swallowed something toxic, it may start gagging as a precursor to retching and vomiting as its body tries to rid itself of the harmful substance.

Cats gag if they are choking

Choking results from a blocked airway. A cat will choke and gag in an effort to dislodge the item. This is a medical emergency.

A cat will display overt signs of distress and will probably drool and paw at their mouths. You will need to take it to the vet immediately.

Pharyngeal Dysphagia and cat gagging

Dysphagia means difficulty swallowing and is a symptom of a number of disorders. These disorders can affect the mouth (oral dysphagia), the pharynx (pharyngeal dysphasia), and the junction between the pharynx and the esophagus (cricopharyngeal dysphasia).

Pharyngeal dysphagia causes a cat to gag. A cat with this condition will be able to take food into its mouth, but swallowing it involves multiple attempts accompanied by flexing and then extending the head and neck and excessing gagging.

Pharyngeal inflammation, swelling of the lymph nodes behind the pharynx, Toxoplasmosis, immune disease, muscular dystrophy, myasthenia gravis, and tick-paralysis are all examples of disorders that cause pharyngeal dysphagia and the associated gagging.

If your cat is gagging while eating or shows any other signs of having difficulty with eating, take them to the vets immediately.

Distinguishing cat gagging from coughing and retching

Is your cat coughing, retching, or gagging? Even vets find these sounds challenging to distinguish. What sounds to you like gagging may be retching or even coughing. Cats can also gag and retch after a severe coughing episode.

In addition to these noises sounding similar, cats gag easily, but they do not cough very often, so mistaking a cough for a gag is quite common.

Respiratory tract infections can cause coughing. Viruses, bacteria, and even parasites (specifically heartworm, which actually affect the lungs rather than the heart) can lead to inflammation and infection in the respiratory tract.

If your kitty has Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, they can be more at risk of developing a respiratory tract infection.

Cats can get asthma. Feline asthma is symptomized by a dry cough and wheezing, but often they can also develop laryngitis, which causes them to retch.

Asthma attacks are very dangerous. If your cat starts to have difficulty breathing or is breathing through an open mouth and their tongue goes blue, take them to see a vet immediately.

Why do cats gag? Conclusion

Cats have a well-developed gag reflex that kicks in at the slightest touch of their throat. If your cat gags once without subsequent vomiting or other signs to indicate potential distress, a tickle was probably the cause.

Although gagging is relatively common, it should not be too frequent. Frequent or prolonged gagging can indicate a problem.

Furthermore, gagging is not always innocuous. It can point to an issue that may require medical attention, and it may even signal an emergency.

All in all, the fact that cat gagging always catches our attention and brings us to their side is a good thing. Rather be relieved to find nothing wrong nine out of ten times than be sorry that one time.

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