Gagging and Dry Heaves (Unproductive Vomiting) in Cats

Published on
Last updated on
3 min read

Key takeaways

Gagging, or retching, describes muscular contraction of the throat that appears similar to the initial stages of vomiting or coughing, but is distinct from both these processes. 

  • Causes of gagging include hairballs, eating excessively fast, nausea, inflammation of the throat or the esophagus, physical blockages in the mouth, throat, and stomach, respiratory disease, poisoning, nasopharyngeal polyps, and tumors
  • Investigation of gagging involves physical examination, blood work, and diagnostic imaging such as x-rays, endoscopy, fluoroscopy, and ultrasound scans
  • Treatment options depend on the underlying disease process but includes medication such as antiinflammatories, antibiotics, anti-nausea medication, and surgery in some cases
  • Prognosis varies: some cases are easily resolved with changes in feeding practices, other cases require urgent attention but carry a good prognosis
  • Severe cases involving tumors of the mouth or throat are often fatal
Are you concerned?

Connect with a vet to get more information about your pet’s health.

Book an online vet

A closer look: Gagging and Dry Heaves (Unproductive Vomiting) in Cats

Gagging is a common presentation in cats but most cases are temporary and involve uncomplicated conditions such as hairballs or eating too quickly. Prognosis in these cases is excellent.

Some cases are associated with airway obstruction, presenting alongside breathing difficulties, blue tinged gums or tongue, and collapse. Cats presenting with gagging alongside possible airway obstruction require emergency treatment.

There are many potential causes of nausea in cats, which can induce gagging. Signs of nausea that resolve on their own and are not recurring are not cause for concern. A cat that has not eaten in over 24 hours, or who is gagging, vomiting or has diarrhea for over 24 hours requires emergency treatment.

Prognosis due to underlying serious medical conditions varies based on the condition and severity of symptoms..

Connect with a vet to get more information

With DVM, ICH certifications and great reviews by pet parents like you for this symptom

Possible causes

There are numerous diseases that have gagging as a possible symptom.

Gagging may also be due to nausea.

Risk factors

The severity of gagging varies significantly depending on the trigger.

Gagging from hairballs is often sudden onset, moderate to severe, but self-limiting once the hairball has been expelled. Gagging from nausea may be mild to severe depending on the extent of the nausea but often responds to treatment. Gagging caused by obstruction such as a slow growing tumor is often progressive and is unlikely to resolve with medication. Gagging associated with airway obstruction is usually severe, and sometimes fatal without emergency treatment.

Testing and diagnosis

Diagnosis of the underlying cause of gagging involves:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood work
  • Bacterial culture
  • Viral isolation
  • Diagnostic imaging

Treatment varies depending on the underlying cause but options include:

Lifestyle changes such as

  • Slow feeding bowls
  • Regular grooming to reduce ingestion of hair
  • Anti-hairball supplements

Medications such as

  • Anti inflammatories
  • Antibiotics
  • Steroids

In some cases, surgery may be required, such as foreign body or tumor removal.

Similar symptoms

Coughing in cats appears very similar to gagging. Cats with respiratory disease such as asthma, or heart disease may appear to be gagging, but may actually be coughing.

Associated symptoms

Gagging is usually found alongside other symptoms which vary depending on the underlying disease process.


No Author - Writing for Emergency Veterinary Care Centers
DR. LAURIE DONOVAN - Writing for Veterinary Emergency Group
No Author - Writing for University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine
Grace Park - Writing for Wag!

Our editorial committee

Our medical review team is responsible for validating and maintaining the quality of our medical information.