Can I Give My Cat Cheese?Though many pet parents shell out quite a bit of cash to help their pets stay healthy through optimal nutrition, the vast majority of them also love to treat their pets. After all, we don’t eat purely for nutritional reasons. Our grandmothers taught us that there are exactly two types of food: food that’s good for your body, and food that’s good for your soul. This is often the justification that we use when we sneak our pets little pieces of people food while we cook dinner in the evening.
One of the big ‘bad for the body, good for the soul’ foods among us humans is one that we love to put in sandwiches, drizzle over chips, and stuff our pizza crusts with: cheese. Some of us have snuck pieces of cheese to our dogs with no negative health effects… but what about our cats? After all, we spent our childhood watching our favorite cartoon cats sip rich, luxurious bowls of cream. We’ve read poems all about little white beads of dairy goodness clinging to kitten whiskers. If they love cream so much, why not other dairy products? Can cats have cheese?
Ideally, NO, cats should not eat any dairy products whatsoever. Cheese and other dairy products are not quite toxic to cats, so they most likely will not result in immediately life-threatening health problems, but they are ill-suited for cat digestion. You’re better off avoiding feeding cheese to your cat in favor of a more feline-friendly treat.
While the cartoon and literary kitties of our lives have been drinking cream for centuries, dairy products are not recommended for the vast majority of cats. Like most mammals, cats become lactose intolerant once they reach adulthood.
Your cat? Lactose intolerant? Why on earth would your otherwise healthy cat have such a potentially painful condition? Do they need supplements?
Well, no. Despite the fact that we consider lactose intolerance to be an oddity among our friends and family, it’s perfectly normal. While cats, like most mammals, are born with the ability to digest their mother’s milk, they lose this ability once they start eating solid food. This is because the body stops producing the lactose-digesting enzyme (aptly called lactase) once the cat is weaned. The result: if they consume foods containing lactose, they may suffer from an upset stomach, bloat, vomiting, and diarrhea.
This is because, evolutionarily speaking, there is no reason for mammals to continue consuming milk after they have been weaned—much less the milk of another species! In the millions of years before they entered our homes, it’s extremely unlikely that our cats’ wild ancestors were exposed to cow’s milk at all.
Things to Keep in MindEven if your cat is able to digest dairy without any trouble, there is no health reason to give them cheese. While it is true that cheese contains some protein, it is not a very healthy or a very efficient source of protein. The measly amount of protein found in a piece of cheese comes with a disproportionate amount of calories, mostly from fat. This means that a cat who develops a love affair with cheese is very likely to become overweight or obese—cheese is a high-fat, calorie-dense food that offers no real nutrition, which means that it provides a whole lot of calories without giving your cat’s body any of the nutrients it needs to function properly.
If your cat eats a large enough quantity of their calories in the form of dairy products, this can actually result in a combination of obesity and malnutrition. This means that, even though your cat is carrying extra weight, they don’t have the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy. It’s a rare condition, but one that is more likely to happen to pets who eat a nutritionally inadequate diet with a lot of table scraps.
Adult mammals do not need milk at all to remain healthy—not even for calcium—but this is especially true for cats, who are obligate carnivores. While our omnivorous dogs tend to thrive on diets containing nutrients from a wide variety of foods, the evolutionarily-constructed ideal cat diet is one that centers on meat.
If you decide that you want to share cheese with your cat anyway, take it slow. You can check for a dairy sensitivity by starting off with a couple tablespoons of milk and waiting 24 hours. A lactose intolerant cat will usually develop vomiting or diarrhea within 12 hours of ingesting cheese. If they seem to handle the milk fairly well, then it is probably safe to give your cat dairy products (including cheese) as a very rare treat. However, if your cat is overweight or has digestive issues, you shouldn’t feed them any amount of cheese—stick with cheese-flavored cat treats specifically formulated for their nutritional and health needs.