By Kate Hughes
Burping after eating or drinking is a fairly common occurrence in humans. Our penchant for socializing during meals and consuming carbonated beverages only exacerbates this issue. If you’re chatting it up while noshing, there’s a greater chance that you’re going to swallow air that comes back later as a burp.
While common in humans, burping is quite rare in cats. In fact, according to Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a staff doctor at NYC’s Animal Medical Center who specializes in small animal internal medicine and oncology, it’s so uncommon that it doesn’t even appear in two major veterinary texts she regularly consults. “I swear I’ve heard my cats burp, but the lack of information out there indicates that if cats do burp, it’s not very important to their overall health,” she says.
Hohenhaus’ observation is seconded by Dr. Krista M. Vernaleken, medical director at Bulger Veterinary Hospital in North Andover, Massachusetts. “I asked 12 veterinarians if anyone has ever brought in a cat because it was burping, and not a single one ever had a burping cat patient,” she says.
Though burping in cats is not a medical condition with high-visibility—if it is a medical condition at all—both Hohenhaus and Vernaleken note that there are other medical conditions or gastrointestinal issues that could conceivably lead a cat to burp or exhibit similar symptoms.
Burping-Adjacent Issues in Cats
When a cat is brought to a veterinarian exhibiting behaviors such as retching, repeated swallowing, and lip-licking, the underlying cause is typically some form of esophagitis, or inflammation of the esophagus. Hohenhaus says there are three major causes of esophagitis. The first is gastroesophageal reflux, more commonly known as heartburn. The second is related to anesthesia; when a cat is put under, the muscle that keeps the esophagus closed gets anesthetized as well. “This can cause stomach acid to bubble up, because the muscle isn’t clamped down the way it usually is,” she describes. The third cause is related to medication. If you’re cat is on a pill regimen, there is a possibility that the pill can become stuck in the throat and irritate the esophagus.
And, of course, when talking about gastrointestinal issues in cats, vomiting is going to come up. “Every cat owner knows the sound of a cat that’s about to vomit, so it’s unlikely that noise would get mistaken for burping,” Vernaleken says. “But there are many, many reasons a cat could be vomiting.” According to Vernaleken, one of the most common causes of vomiting in cats is eating too quickly. She also mentions that it is possible that a cat could swallow air when gulping down food, however, if that air needs to come back up, there’s a good chance it’s coming back with the food.
When are Burp-Like Sounds in Cats an Emergency?
While burping in cats isn’t really indicative of any underlying health issues, there are some similar noises and behaviors that should result in an immediate trip to the vet. Respiratory noises, nasal problems, and asthma all require medical attention. “One cough or wheeze isn’t a big deal, but if these noises go on for a prolonged period of time, you should definitely take your cat to the vet,” Vernaleken says.
Hohenhaus adds that the occasional weird noise isn’t much of a cause for concern, but if that noise is accompanied by a lack of appetite or weight loss, you should make an appointment to ensure that everything is OK. “And, if this noise is happening after the cat takes medication or has gone under anesthesia, you should schedule a follow-up appointment,” she says.
How to Help Cats with Gastrointestinal Issues
If a cat is exhibiting any of the above health issues, there are some ways pet owners can help.
When administering pills, Hohenhaus recommends following the pill with a syringe of water to help wash it down. This will prevent them from getting stuck in the esophagus and irritating sensitive tissues. Another option is to ask if the medication is available in liquid form.
When it comes to vomiting due to fast eating, both Hohenhaus and Vernaleken recommend taking steps to slow your cat down. “If you have the luxury of time, you can split your cat’s meals into several small servings per day,” Vernaleken says. “If not, you could invest in specially designed bowls and toys that prevent a cat from eating too quickly.” These “slow-down” bowls are designed with prongs that require cats to eat more carefully to avoid them. Also available are hollow toys that release food when cats bat them around.
Hohenhaus also notes that a high-fat diet could contribute to vomiting. “Fat is slow to move out of the stomach, so a lower-fat diet would help move food more quickly and make room before a cat eats his next meal,” she describes.
Diagnosing Unusual Noises in Cats
While burping doesn’t seem to be a big problem in cats, it is imperative that pet owners remain diligent for changes in their pets’ behavior. Even small variations from the norm could mean something isn’t quite right, and it’s always good to have a baseline to compare to when taking cats to the vet. And, getting your cat to demonstrate out-of-place behaviors during a vet visit is easier said than done. “Whatever the cat is doing at home, in my experience, he isn’t going to do in my office,” Hohenhaus says. “It is essential that pet owners are able to observe their cats and be able to answer questions to get a proper diagnosis.”