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Why Do Cats Gag When They Smell Food

Cats have more than 200 million smell receptors in their noses, unlike humans with 5 million sensors, making a cat’s sense of smell thirteen times better than ours.  Cats, also, just like humans, can associate unpleasant experiences with an event, taste, or smell. When the same associations come up later in their lives, their brains refresh the same icky feeling, some form of post-traumatic reflex, even if the smell is as good as freshly fried bacon.

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How important is it for cats to sense smells?

The cat’s nose organ, though tiny and cute, plays a very vital role. The nose:

  • Guides the to its prey
  • Senses the food smell, which tells her if the food is edible or toxic
  • It helps the cat detect other cats who are ready to mate
  • Stimulates her appetite
  • It is used to sense other cat’s territorial markings
  • For mutually sniffing each other as a feline greeting
  • Used to identify humans and objects

Why Do Cats Gag at Certain Smells?

Cats may gag for the following common reasons:

  • A reflex reaction to smells
  • The need to cough up hairballs or Eject food 
  • When they have an underlying health condition or when not feeling well

1. A Reflex Reaction to Smells

As a cat owner, I have experienced a couple of incidents where my cat gagged while I was cooking or after I offered her some human food. The vomeronasal sac or the Jacobson’s organ in cats is used to detect specific chemical smells, hunt, and play an essential role in reproduction. Cats use this sac to have nausea at the aroma of certain plants, fruits, and foods. Even though we might love these strong scents, cats may negatively respond to them and react as productive gagging. Cats respond to the following smells:

Minty smells

Even though the mint plant belongs to the same family as catnips, cats tend to avoid it. The pungent smell repulses cats and may cause complications when ingested by the cat. A similar reaction is seen when cats inhale the scent of methanol and wintergreen.


Cats avoid the strong scents and tastes of cinnamon. When cooking or preparing something with cinnamon, keep your ‘kitty’ away. Cinnamon is also linked to pet allergic reactions and toxicity.


We all love the smell of lavender and may have at one time used lavender scented detergents or air fresheners. However, cats dislike lavender and try to stay away from the scent as much as possible. I try to avoid using lavender as it makes my cat uncomfortable. If I have no other option, I use the scent in a dilute way since a high concentration could make my cat ill. 

Citrus Fruits

Oranges, lemons, grapefruits, limes, and other citrus family members do not do well with cats due to the pungent odor they produce. Such smells can elicit nausea, cause vomiting, gagging, or even dermatitis (cat allergy-causing unrelated hypersensitivity on its skin). The scent of these fruits also causes discomfort for cats. Cat experts advise that such fruits be kept far from the cat’s cattery.


Cats are also not fans of broccoli, just like some of us! When a cat smells broccoli, it may react with a gagging reflex or start making faces.


As I make my coffee and marvel at the great fragrance it produces, my cat might be gagging at the smell; Sometimes, I guess that I could have just messed up my cat’s morning. Some people use the coffee grounds to keep cats from destroying their gardens.


As much as we assume that whenever we smoke the cat leaves, we must not forget that some smoke condenses onto fabric or floors. This smoke is picked up by the cat’s fur, which ends up being ingested as the cat is grooming.

2. The Need to Cough up Hairballs or Eject Stomach Contents 

Sometimes, cats might gag with nothing showing at the exit of their mouth. The cat may be trying to:

Remove Ingested Medication or Alcohol

When my cat is sick, I sometimes take it to a vet who recommends medicines depending on the illness. However, I have noticed that my cat does not enjoy some medication, such as Pyrantel. Every time I give her the drug, she will start gagging and eventually vomit it out. 

Alcoholic tastes also are irritative to cats and may cause a gagging reflex when the cat ingests them.

Get Rid of Ingested Chemicals

When cats walk around, they may rub their hair or paws on surfaces that may have been cleaned with harsh cleaning compounds. They may have even moved around in garbage cans that are sprayed with chemicals to keep pests away. As they groom themselves, they may ingest these chemicals, which may damage their digestive tracts. If the digestive system is unsettled, the cat naturally starts vomiting, accompanied by gagging.

Eject Ingested Mildew

Cats tend to access dark, damp areas such as the basement or crawlspace. In there, they might inhale mildew which will stick onto their nasal passages, or they may come into contact with mildewy pieces of foods. Their food bowls may also have developed mold or mildew due to poor cleaning.

Stop Choking

Some objects such as food and bones can cause a cat to choke. As the cat tries to clear the digestive tract, it will gag and cough until the food or bone is removed. If the coughing and gagging are prolonged, cat experts advise that the cat be taken to a pet doctor for a checkup.

React to Foods

When cats realize that they have taken poisonous substances or spoiled food, they quickly try as much as possible to vomit. Wet food can also cause gagging, mainly when the cat eats greedily. Some cats gag when they spell wet food. The smell of food, be it human foods or cat food, could also cause gagging in cats. This reminds me to be highly cautious of the type of food I give my cat.

Have an Allergic Reaction to Some Components of Cat Foods or the Environment

Some cats are allergic to certain foods such as dairy products, beef, chicken, and fish. Introducing new foods to the cat may also force an allergic reaction. In this case, genetic predisposition plays a significant role in influencing which type of allergy the cat will have. Due to the allergy, the cat may be seen gagging after consuming such foods or after coming into contact with the same. 

Eject a Hairball

As cats are grooming themselves, they are sometimes ingesting their hair. This hair could cause gagging in the cat as it tries to remove the ball of fur stuck in its throat.

3. When they have an underlying health condition or when not feeling well

Gagging could indicate various health problems. Therefore, it is essential to note whenever gagging becomes continuous besides the usual and visit a veterinarian for treatment and care. Health conditions that cause gagging include:

Digestive Problems

When the cat has problems with its stomach, or there is no sufficient digestion of food, cats might try to vomit. The process will, of course, start with gagging. When I overfeed my cat with chunks of beef, it is sometimes constipated for a day or two. However, it creates space for more food by vomiting that is alternated with gags.

Medical Procedures

Suppose a cat fails to recover well from anesthesia. In that case, the muscle opening between the stomach and esophagus may relax and lead to acid reflux which causes the cat to show gagging, spit food, or vomit. Any form of nausea in cats will also be accompanied by gagging.


Cats with gastroenteritis will most certainly show signs of gagging when they try to vomit and may be accompanied by diarrhea. This disease is caused by bacteria, reactions to new food or medicine, or even an indicator of systemic disease. Depression, lack of appetite, and sleepiness are also indicators of gastroenteritis. 

Kidney diseases

As cats age over time, they start developing kidney complications. These problems arising could cause nausea and vomiting accompanied by frequent gagging. Kidney disease could be caused by obesity, toxic substances, dental conditions, congenital disabilities, genetic disorders, eject, and urinary tract infections. This type of gagging is accompanied by signs such as :

  • Increased thirst and urination
  • Itchiness accompanied by the rolling movement
  • Weakness
  • Pale gums 
  • Lethargy

Liver Diseases

Due to the critical role the liver plays in filtering toxins in the cat, it becomes more susceptible to illnesses. These sicknesses are usually followed by gagging and a noticeable change of appetite.

Heart Disease

Heart diseases in cats are acquired from birth or caused by other factors as the cat grows up. When a cat is sick in the heart, it may show a gagging reflex accompanied by bouts of coughs and irregular heartbeats.


Since cats are predators, they will always try to pounce on anything that moves. In this process, they may end up being bitten by a poisonous animal or contact harmful substances. This will cause feline gagging.