Regurgitation is the relatively effortless expulsion of undigested food, without retching. It occurs because the esophagus is physically blocked or there is a breakdown in the swallowing mechanism (peristalsis). In either case, the food accumulates until the esophagus is overloaded, after which the food is passively expelled.
Regurgitation should not be confused with vomiting. Vomiting is the forceful expulsion of stomach contents, preceded by retching. Vomited food is sour smelling, appears digested, or at least partly digested, and is often mixed with yellow bile.
Chronic regurgitation (the kind that comes and goes but seems to be getting worse) suggests a partial obstruction caused by megaesophagus, stricture, or tumor.
A serious complication of regurgitation is aspiration pneumonia, in which the lungs become infected as a result of food being aspirated (inhaled) into them. When regurgitated food ends up in the lungs, aspiration pneumonia is the result. Another potentially serious complication is nasal cavity infection. This occurs when food is regurgitated into the nose.
Bouts of severe coughing and gagging can be mistaken for either regurgitation or vomiting. It is important to distinguish between all three conditions, because each denotes a disease in a different system.
Dysphagia (difficult, painful swallowing)
If there is a partial blockage, swallowing can be difficult and painful, but the cat does not necessarily regurgitate. A cat with a painful esophagus makes repeated attempts to swallow the same mouthful and eats slowly. There may be noticeable weight loss, and as the condition becomes more painful, the cat may stop eating altogether.
Painful swallowing can be associated with mouth infections, dental infections, sore throat, or tonsillitis. Cats with these conditions also often have drooling and halitosis. Sometimes, the cat can eat softened or liquid foods but not hard or dry foods. Some cats will lick the “gravy” off canned foods but not eat the chunks.
This article is excerpted from “Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.