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When Vomit Isn't Vomit

Today I want to discuss the difference between vomiting and regurgitating.
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Today I want to discuss the difference between vomiting and regurgitating.

Now, I'm sure some of you are thinking, "Ugh!" But the fact is many people don't know exactly what's happening when something suddenly flies out of their pet's mouth. Having this information can be extremely helpful in determining whether you should see a vet, and what to tell him or her at your appointment.

Since your dog or cat isn't apt to vomit or regurgitate on cue at the vet's office, knowing what she was doing before you get there is beneficial in diagnosing the problem.

Also taking a video of your pet during one of her episodes, and taking it with you to your vet appointment can be beneficial. It may seem strange, but it can actually help your vet arrive at a diagnosis in much less time than it might otherwise take.

How to Tell the Difference Between the Two "Events"

Most veterinarians, when presented with the "vomiting pet," first have to determine whether the animal is actually vomiting, or is instead regurgitating. Deciding which it is is very important, because the problems have different causes and different treatments.

If your pet is about to vomit, he feels nauseous. His abdominal walls are beginning to contract. He may drip or drool saliva, or begin licking his lips right before he retches. Often there's a heaving motion before he actually empties the contents of his stomach onto your floor.

If your pet regurgitates, chances are he'll simply open his mouth and out will come part of a meal, or the water he just drank. There's usually no warning with regurgitation. It's passive, whereas vomiting is an active process.

Vomitus, Regurgitus, or Expectoration?

Contrary to what many pet owners believe, the timing of a meal and an episode of vomiting or regurgitation isn't an indicator of what is happening, nor is whether the food looks digested or undigested.

What lands on your floor is either vomitus or regurgitus, and believe it or not, yes ... those are actually words!

When a pet vomits, the stuff she brings up comes from her stomach and sometimes the first part of her small intestine. If there's yellow or orangish-colored bile or digestive fluid, you know your pet is vomiting. But not all vomitus contains bile. So, if you don't see any, it doesn't mean that your pet didn't vomit.

Regurgitus, on the other hand, reappears from either the esophagus or the pharynx (the back of the throat), which is why sometimes it's shaped like a tube. It's typically a mixture of food, saliva, and sometimes mucus - but not bile.

A third variety of this lovely subject matter is when a dog or cat expectorates. Many pet owners can confuse this event with vomiting. When an animal coughs -- a few times or several times -- and then produces a blob of mucus, she is expectorating, which is very different from regurgitating or vomiting. The key with expectoration is that there's always a cough involved.

Common Causes of Regurgitation

A disease of the esophagus is the most common cause of regurgitation in a pet, and is either the result of an obstruction or a motility problem. The esophagus can be obstructed by a foreign body, stricture, vascular abnormality, or, less commonly, a tumor.

Motility disorders or problems with the muscle contractions of the esophagus can be either congenital or acquired. An acquired motility disorder can be caused by esophagitis (inflammation of the esophagus), hypoadrenocorticism (which is the fancy name for Addison's disease), lead toxicity, organophosphate toxicity, myasthenia gravis (a neuromuscular disorder), and possibly hypothyroidism. Megaesophagus or an enlarged esophagus can also cause regurgitation in many pets.

Though uncommon, regurgitation can also be caused by pharyngeal dysphagia, which is a swallowing disorder. Pets with this condition can have difficulty or pain when swallowing, causing them to cough or gag when they try to swallow. So you'll see pets drop food from their mouths while eating. Pharyngeal dysphagia can be the result of a neuromuscular disorder, a tumor on the pharynx, an anatomic abnormality, or trauma.

Different Problems Requiring Different Treatments

As you can see, vomiting and regurgitation are actually quite different problems. The reasons pets vomit are wide-ranging, but are much different than the reasons a pet regurgitates.

In an otherwise healthy pet, the tendency to vomit is usually tied to the diet, dietary indiscretion, possibly a toxin or foreign body, or a developing condition like inflammatory bowel disease. Regurgitation happens for reasons unrelated to the diet or the health of the lower GI tract. The diagnosis and treatment of the two problems are quite different as well.

Dr. Karen Becker is a proactive and integrative wellness veterinarian. You can visit her site at:

Her goal is to help you create wellness in order to prevent illness in the lives of your pets. This proactive approach seeks to save you and your pet from unnecessary stress and suffering by identifying and removing health obstacles even before disease occurs. Unfortunately, most veterinarians in the United States are trained to be reactive. They wait for symptoms to occur, and often treat those symptoms without addressing the root cause.

By reading Dr. Becker's information, you'll learn how to make impactful, consistent lifestyle choices to improve your pet's quality of life.

For more by Dr. Karen Becker, click here.

For more on pet health, click here.