Can I Give My Cat Milk?
The timeless image of a happy housecat looks something like this: a pudgy Persian (with pristine white fur) crouching in front of a dish of creamy, full-fat milk. If cartoons are anything to go by, our feline friends can only transcend suffering and achieve Kitty Nirvana when they have beads of milk clinging to their whiskers. The idyllic picture of the cream-loving cat has led many well-meaning pet owners to treat their cats to saucers full of milk from time to time, but is this really a good idea?
As science has improved and research has debunked many of the ideas we took for granted, we’ve learned to be skeptical of much of the ‘conventional wisdom’ handed down to us. Now that people are more interested in pet nutrition than ever before, we are skeptical of every new addition to our pets’ diets. So, what’s the verdict? Can cats have milk?
It may come as a surprise, but no, cats should not consume milk. Actually, in an ideal world, cats would not eat any dairy products at all! Cow’s milk is not toxic to cats the same way that grapes, onions, and chocolate are, but it is quite unhealthy and difficult to digest. Cats who consume a significant amount of dairy products are likely to suffer from a variety of unpleasant health effects. So, in general, there is no need to rush your cat to the vet if they lap up a little milk, but you should not give it to them intentionally.
So why shouldn’t your cat enjoy a cool cup of cow’s milk? Like most adult mammals, felines are lactose intolerant. Because so many of us grew up drinking milk several times a day, this seems strange, but it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
For millions of years of mammalian evolution, we have only ever consumed our mother’s milk. When they are very young, mammals live exclusively on mother’s milk. As they age, however, they are weaned, they transition to solid foods, and they never drink milk again. The bodies of cats and other mammals are remarkably efficient—they don’t want to make anything that they do not need. As a result, mammalian bodies stop producing lactase, the enzyme required for digesting milk sugars, once they are weaned.
A certain number of western humans, who have consumed milk products for a few thousand years now, are better adapted to digesting milk products into adulthood. We are, however, the exception. Our cats’ wild ancestors did not drink their mother’s milk into adulthood—and they certainly never encountered the milk produced by cows or goats!
Domestication may have given some housecats a little bit more tolerance for milk, but by and large, they struggle to digest it properly. If your cat drinks milk, yet does not have enough lactase to process the milk sugar that comes with it, they will suffer from symptoms of lactose intolerance. Your cat will wind up with an upset stomach, bloating, vomiting, and possibly diarrhea.
Some cats seem to be able to consume dairy with little trouble, but this does not give them a free pass to slurp up bowls of milk. Thinking in terms of nutrition, there is no good reason to give your cat milk. As milk industry ads are so eager to inform you, this creamy beverage does have some protein, but it is not a very efficient source of protein for cats. That protein doesn’t come without baggage, either: milk is also high in fat, calories, and cholesterol, which can contribute to obesity and disease. Cats are carnivores who thrive on the balance of nutrients present in meat products, not dairy. This means that your cat will be consuming a lot of calories without meeting many of their dietary needs.
Things to Consider
Nursing kittens should not consume cow’s milk either! Cow’s milk does not have the proper balance of nutrients necessary to sustain growing kittens. If you are raising an orphaned kitten, purchase formula made specifically for felines.
Though athletes on TV often sport milk mustaches, your lactose intolerant obligate carnivore of a cat definitely does not need milk to stay healthy and fit. There is no reason to rush your furry friend to the vet if they have consumed milk, but to maintain optimal health, it would be better to stick with plain water. Cats do not need the protein, calcium, fat, or calories present in dairy milk.