We know it well. The image of wide-eyed fuzzy kittens lapping contentedly at a saucer of milk, their curious little faces bearing the evidence of their enthusiasm for their tasty treat.
Cats and milk – it’s a love story we’ve been told a dozen times. But is it just that, a story? Sure, cats do seem to love milk, cream and other dairy-based products, but does that mean that they’re good for cats to eat? Can cats drink milk? Is milk good for cats?
Read on to find out more about which, if any, dairy products are safe for cats to consume.
- Are cats lactose intolerant?
- Can cats drink lactose-free milk?
- What about goat milk?
- Can cats eat other dairy products? | Yogurt | Kefir | Sour cream | Whipped cream | Cheese | Butter | Ice cream | Custard | Whey
- Final thoughts
Are cats lactose intolerant?
Lactose is milk sugar. For humans and cats to digest it, their digestive systems must have an enzyme called lactase. The enzyme is present in kittens and babies from birth, but less lactase is naturally produced after weaning.
Most animals don’t require milk after weaning, and cats are no different. It means that while a young kitten’s digestive tract is designed to process lactose, their ability to digest lactose steadily decreases as they grow into adulthood. It can sometimes lead to cats not being able to process dairy at all, then say that the cat is lactose intolerant.
When a lactose-intolerant cat consumes lactose, the results usually include vomiting and diarrhea within 12 hours of consumption. The cat can also experience increased thirst, abdominal pain, constipation, and dehydration, among others.
The good news is that not all cats will have a problem after consuming milk. Some of you may have already given your cat milk or cream and seen no ill effects. It is entirely normal. Some cats will react badly to milk, while others may be just fine.
Even if your cat experiences no adverse reactions from consuming dairy, it’s not recommended to give your cat milk regularly, as it is still not a nutritionally complete food source for cats or kittens. It shouldn’t make up more than 10% of their diet at the very most.
If you have a tiny kitten that you’re fostering or have rescued, go for a specially formulated milk replacement for kittens rather than cows’ milk. It will contain all the essential nutrients that kittens need.
Can cats drink lactose-free milk?
So, if lactose is a problem for some cats, what about giving them a lactose-free alternative? You can easily order lactose-free milk online, and it is commonly available on most supermarket shelves — can this be given to cats?
It’s always advisable to avoid feeding ‘human’ food to cats. If you must, go for a lactose-free or lactose-reduced milk product specially formulated for cats. That said, cats don’t need milk past weaning, especially if they get adequate protein and nutrients from a high-quality diet.
Cats are better off drinking water as their primary source of hydration. Milk and lactose-free milk will help hydrate your cat but still add unnecessary fat and calories to your cat’s diet, which can lead to weight gain over time.
A note on goat’s milk
Goat’s milk is much easier to digest for your cat than cow’s milk as it contains less lactose. That said, some cats may still not be able to digest it, so test it out on your cat first in small amounts. The fat content of goat’s milk is also lower than that of cow’s milk.
It’s still not necessary to include any milk into your cat’s diet, but if your cat likes goat’s milk and tolerates it well, then it makes for an occasional healthy treat to add to your cat’s regular diet.
Can cats eat dairy products?
So now we know that milk can cause gastrointestinal upset in cats that are particularly sensitive to lactose. What about other dairy products? Can cats have yogurt and cheese? What about butter?
Can cats eat yogurt
Alright, is yogurt good for cats? Yogurt that is plain and unsweetened can be used as an occasional treat for your cat. Flavored yogurt is not suitable as the sugar it often contains is not easily digested by cats. Check the ingredients for artificial sweeteners like xylitol, and flavorings that can be harmful to pets.
Yogurt is usually tolerated better than milk because it is lower in lactose, and is also high in protein and some beneficial probiotics. It’s always best to give your cat a tiny amount as a test, and if no ill effects are noticed by the next day, then you know it’s probably safe to feed your cat yogurt.
Remember, the high fat content can quickly rack up the calories, so make sure that yogurt is a rare treat. What is more, you should never give kittens yogurt as it can cause digestive issues.
Can cats drink kefir
Like yogurt, kefir can offer your pet a probiotic boost. Because of the bacterial fermentation used to produce kefir, much of the lactose is consumed during fermentation. Double-fermented kefir is even lower in lactose.
It’s important to start slow as cats can still develop gastric symptoms, so proceed carefully.
Can cats eat sour cream
Heavy cream and sour cream are both high in fat. Even if your cat does tolerate lactose well, the high fat content in the cream and sour cream can most certainly cause gastric problems like diarrhea and vomiting.
If your cat sneaks a lick here and there, it should be fine. Just be conscious of the added calories. Too many fats over time can cause your cat to gain weight, especially in older, less active cats and those that are exclusively indoor cats.
Can cats eat whipped cream
You shouldn’t feed a cat with whipped cream from a can. Aside from its high sugar content, other preservatives and additives are simply not appropriate for cats.
Can cats have whipped cream that you cooked for them? If you purchase fresh cream and whip it on your own, perhaps a lick or two would be okay for your cat. It’s important to remember that cream is very high in fat, which can cause gastrointestinal issues. Not to mention that it will add plenty of excess calories to your cat’s diet with a minimal nutritional payoff.
Can cats eat cheese
Is cheese bad for cats, even when they love it so much? Cheese is technically okay for cats to have in minimal quantities. If your cat tolerates lactose well, then you can get away with offering your cat a small cheesy nibble occasionally. You should avoid moldy cheeses, such as blue cheese, as they can be toxic to pets.
Cheese like cheddar and Swiss cheese are lower in lactose, while mozzarella, cottage cheese, and cream cheese are much higher in it. The general rule of thumb is that harder cheeses tend to contain less lactose than softer cheese.
Can cats have cheese spreads? In processed, spreads, and cream cheeses, be on the lookout for added ingredients that are not suitable for cats. Additives like garlic and onions are toxic for cats and should be avoided.
What’s especially important to consider with cheese is the salt content. If your cat has heart problems, stick to a low sodium diet and avoid giving them any cheese. Cheese is also very high in fat and calories, so if you’re watching your cat’s weight, you may want to keep cheese to a minimum.
Can cats eat butter
During the butter-making process, the fat is separated from the buttermilk. The buttermilk is where all the lactose is, but the fat is used to make the butter. It means butter itself is relatively low in lactose. So, can cats have butter?
Low lactose content doesn’t mean it’s good for felines. Butter is mostly all fat. While this makes it tasty as anything, it also makes it super high in calories, especially for cats. If your housecat is looking a little chonky around the middle, it’s best not to share any butter with them.
Can cats eat ice cream
Cats tend to be very interested in ice cream and often beg relentlessly for a bit of taste of your dessert. While it’s tempting to give in and give them a little bit, there are a few things to take note of.
The truth is that chocolate is very bad for cats, so if your ice cream is chocolate flavored, then it’s a hard no to sharing with your feline companion. Sugar-free options usually contain xylitol, a sweetener that is dangerous both for cats and dogs.
If your ice cream contains nuts like macadamias and walnuts, you shouldn’t share such sweets with your cat. Walnuts can be toxic for cats, and macadamias can cause lethargy and tremors, among other symptoms.
Check out our post on which sweet treats you can safely share with your kitty.
Can cats eat custard
Custard, whether homemade, instant or ready-to-eat, is both high in fat and sugar. A small lick will most likely not cause too much of a problem, especially for cats who can tolerate lactose well. However, if your cat tends toward the heavier end of the spectrum, it’s best to avoid custard as it can very quickly pack on the pounds.
Remember that large quantities of sugar and fat cause gastric upset, so even if your cat is fine with lactose, these two offenders can still cause tummy issues for your cat in larger quantities.
Can cats have whey
Whey is a byproduct of the cheesemaking process. Popularized by a certain Miss Muffet, whey is an easy and convenient way to supplement protein in humans. Whey protein powder is commonly added to shakes and smoothies by those leading a very active lifestyle and looking to build lean muscle mass.
So, can you share your protein shake with your cat?
Whey protein is, in fact, perfect for cats as it contains high protein and various essential amino acids. What isn’t healthy for cats is the other ingredients added to human whey supplements like flavorings, artificial sweeteners like xylitol, and preservatives.
Chat with your vet about the benefits of whey for your cat. You can use an online service called Vet Chat to clarify using whey in your cat's diet. Several commercial food brands use whey in their foods, but it’s best not to share your shake with your cat if you are not sure that it doesn’t contain any harmful additives.
Final thoughts on dairy for cats
That cats need milk in their diet is a misconception that’s been around for ages. The reality is that past kittenhood, your cat does not need dairy, and in many cases, probably can’t digest it anyway.
Cats that are consuming a balanced diet can live quite happily and healthily without dairy. Kittens that are orphaned or have been rescued and require milk should be given a specially formulated kitten milk substitute to offer them adequate nutrition.
Our best advice is to try to replicate the kind of diet and lifestyle that felines would enjoy in the wild. It means that if a food group such as dairy isn’t what cats would eat in the wild and there’s no other need for it, then it’s best to leave it out.
There’s no need to go out of your way to include milk or dairy products in your cat’s diet unless you want to. Of course, we know how persistent a cat can be when it wants a taste of whatever you’re having, so we don’t blame you for wanting to share your food.
If you must share your dairy, make sure you check for added ingredients that can be harmful, start slowly, and always keep portions very small. Look out for signs that your cat may be reacting poorly to your shared snack.
As always, it’s best to check with your veterinarian when adding new food to your cat’s diet, particularly if your cat has any existing conditions.
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