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Can Cats Drink Milk?

Can Cats Drink Milk?

Most cats love to drink milk, right? If you are a cat owner, you may have even experienced your cat lapping up leftover milk out of your cereal bowl at some point.

You may have even tried to prevent your cat from aggressively attempting to drink milk from your cup.

Even though this may seem like a benign treat for your cat, adult cats should not drink milk.

In this article, we will discuss cat nutrition and the various reasons why cats should not drink milk.


Nutritional Needs for Kittens

Newborn kittens need their mother’s milk for nutrition until they are old enough to be weaned. Kittens can be weaned off of their mother’s milk anywhere between 4-8 weeks of age.

They may start eating solid foods as early as 6 weeks of age, even if they keep nursing. Once they are completely weaned and eating solid foods on their own, their bodies begin to lose the ability to process milk.

Nutritional Needs for Cats

Cats have very specific nutritional needs in order to stay healthy. They are strict carnivores, which means they must eat animal-sourced protein products to get all of the nutrients they need.

Feeding a balanced and complete diet for cats means their food contains a high amount of protein, a moderate amount of fat, and minimal amounts of carbohydrates.

There are certain amino acids that cats must ingest through their food. This is because their bodies cannot make them on their own. These amino acids include taurine, arginine, methionine, and cysteine.

The main way they take these in is by eating animal protein. Most commercial cat foods either have enough animal protein in the formula to meet these requirements, or they add these nutrients into the food in sufficient and balanced quantities.

Why Cats Should Not Drink Milk

As mentioned earlier, cats begin to lose the ability to digest and process milk as early as weaning. The enzyme that is needed to break down the sugar, lactose, in milk is called lactase.

Lactase decreases in their bodies as they become adults, although this does vary from cat to cat. Some cats may completely lose all of their ability to breakdown milk sugars. While other cats may still retain some ability to break down the sugars.

Lactose Intolerance

The cats that are unable to process milk are considered lactose intolerant, just like how some people can be lactose intolerant. If these cats are allowed to drink milk, they will have indigestion and gastrointestinal distress.

If your cat is lactose intolerant, within 8-12 hours after being allowed to drink milk, they may show the one or multiple of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea & upset stomach
  • Excessive gas
  • Lying around and being more tired than usual
  • Decreased appetite

These symptoms may last for 1-2 days. They may even require your cat to be seen by the veterinarian to get prescription anti-nausea and anti-diarrheal medications to help them feel better. Keep in mind that if your cat cannot tolerate milk, this also means their body likely cannot tolerate any dairy products.  

There are some cats, though, that are not lactose intolerant and can do not get an upset stomach from drinking milk. However, there are other health reasons you should avoid giving your cat milk to drink.

Fat & Calorie Content

The majority of milk products we drink and likely offer to our cats are derived from cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is very creamy and typically high in fat. Even if your cat does not have any problems digesting milk, when they drink milk they are getting extra calories in their diet.

Obesity is one of the most common health problems seen in domestic cats these days. Allowing your cat to drink milk regularly, especially without adjusting their calorie consumption appropriately, can lead to your cat to become overweight or obese.

Obese cats can be more at risk for the following detrimental health conditions:

  • Crippling arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Cancer

It is, therefore, better to give your cat other things for treats, instead of milk. There are low-calorie cat treats available, and even treats that are good for the health of their teeth.

If your cat does not get indigestion from drinking milk and you really want to give them milk as a treat every now and then, make sure to decrease how much of their regular food you give them on the day you offer them milk.

Check with your veterinarian on what your cat’s daily calorie intake should be. They can also help you calculate how much milk you can give as a treat every now and then, along with how much to decrease their regular diet on days they get milk.

Cats Need Balanced Nutrition

If you leave milk out for your cat to drink, there is a good chance they will regularly fill themselves up on the milk. This means they may eat less of their complete and balanced cat food.

This is the same as if we give a child the capability of eating junk food all day- they will fill up on the tasty junk food and not be hungry for a wholesome, nutritious dinner. Even though they are getting calories, they are not necessarily getting nutritious calories. 

Like we discussed earlier, cats have very specific nutritional needs. They can easily become malnourished if they are not eating enough animal protein and getting their necessary amino acids on a daily basis.

Milk does not have all of the nutrients that cats need to live a healthy and happy life. For this reason, it is not a good idea to let your cat drink milk on a regular basis.

But My Cat Loves to Drink Milk!

For many cats, milk is likely a sort of comfort food. The smell of it probably brings back fond memories of when they were kittens and drinking their mom’s milk. Not to mention, they are drawn to the creamy taste of it.

You are not alone if your cat is driving you crazy wanting you to share your milk with them.

If you absolutely must give your cat milk to drink, remember that moderation is key, just like most things in life. Here are some things you can do when giving them milk so that it does not hurt their health:

  • Offer only lactose-free milk (make sure there is no sugar alternatives in it, such as Xylitol, which can be toxic to cats)
  • Give milk as a treat sparingly and on occasion – not daily
  • Do not feed milk as the sole source of nutrition
  • Do not let them drink from your bowls or cups as this may encourage them to beg or be pushy
  • Put a small amount of milk (1-3 tablespoons) in a bowl specific for your cat 1-2 times per week as a treat
  • On the days your cat drinks this small amount of milk, decrease how much of their regular food you feed them
  • Monitor your cat closely for vomiting, diarrhea, gas, nausea, lethargy for 24 hours after they drink milk
  • If your cat has any of these symptoms, it is best to not give them any milk at all

Always check with your veterinarian first to make sure it is okay for your individual cat to drink milk. If your cat is already overweight, at risk of diabetes, or has other underlying gastrointestinal diseases, it is probably not a good idea to give your cat milk to drink.

Other intestinal diseases that could be exasperated or flared up by your cat drinking milk include inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies, intestinal infections, and certain intestinal cancers.

What Can My Cat Drink?

Water! Water it the best thing for your cat to drink. In fact, many cats do not drink enough water. This is one reason why older cats tend to develop kidney disease. Cats need to have easily accessible, fresh water available at all times.

Some cats prefer running water. If this is the case with your cat, you can increase their water intake by getting them a cat water fountain that has constantly running water.

Alternatively, you can leave a bathroom sink slowly dripping water. Many cats love to play with dripping sinks, putting their paw under the faucet and then licking the water off of their paw, or directly lapping up the dripping water from the faucet.

Providing your cat with canned, moist food is also a good way to increase their hydration and water intake. Moist food has higher water content than dry food.

Even though dry food is better for your cat’s teeth and easier to manage, it is okay to give your cat canned food every now and then, or even as a side treat to their dry food.

Just make sure to adequately decrease how much dry food you give your cat so their calories balance out.  Again, you can work with your veterinarian for the exact details.

FAQs 

Why can’t cats drink milk?

Most adult cats are lactose intolerant. They do not have the enzyme, lactase, to properly break down the sugar, lactose, in milk.

How do I know if my cat is lactose intolerant?

They will have vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, gas, and/or lethargy within 8-12 hours of drinking milk. Their symptoms may last anywhere from one day to multiple days.

My cat drinks milk without any problems. Is it okay for me to continue to give them milk?

In moderation. Milk should not be their sole source of nutrition. It is okay to offer a small amount (1-3 tbsp) as a treat 1-2 times per week. Anything more than that could lead to nutritional imbalances and/or weight problems.

What should I give my cat to drink instead of milk?

Water. Fresh water is the best thing for your cat to drink.

Conclusion

Many cats are lactose intolerant and cannot drink milk without getting indigestion. They will have vomiting, diarrhea, and gas. For cats who are not lactose intolerant, milk should still only be given sparingly as it could cause them to become overweight or obese, or lead to nutritional imbalances.

In summary, do not feed your cat milk as the sole source of their nutrition. If your cat loves milk and does not get sick from it, it is okay to give them milk on occasion in small amounts as a treat. It is best to consult with your cat’s veterinarian regarding whether milk is okay to give them and by how much you should adjust their other meals when you do offer them milk as a treat.

 

Sources

Veterinary Oral Health Council: Accepted Products for Cats


Article by Dr. Leslie Brooks 👩‍⚕️
Veterinarian