Can I Give My Dog Milk?
Due to massive subsidies and a widely successful marketing campaign, dairy milk has been cast for decades as the most wholesome, sentimental, comforting, all-American beverage. For many Americans, there are few things more comforting than cookies and milk, or a rainy evening brought to a close with a glass of warm milk. For fussy children, a little bit of chocolate or strawberry flavoring is all it takes to foster a love of dairy milk. For athletes, it is marketed as the perfect recovery drink. Everyone, aside from your lactose intolerant cousin, seems to love drinking milk for comfort and for health. Dairy milk has become a staple in refrigerators across the country.
Since everyone around us seems to love drinking milk by the gallon, the next question for us pet owners is: what about Fido? Can dogs have milk? Is warmed milk a good option for your dog on a cold winter night?
The answer may surprise you: No. Dairy milk is not poisonous for dogs—it will not cause immediate kidney failure, liver problems or other poisoning symptoms—but dairy products in general are not recommended for dogs, and they are more trouble than they are worth. Under normal circumstances, most dogs should not drink milk. Olympians may love it, but your healthy, fully grown Labrador is probably going to be better off without it.
Does dairy have ANY redeeming qualities? Yes and no. Milk is high in protein and calcium, but it also often contains high levels of fat, cholesterol, and calories. The protein and calcium found in milk may help your dog build a strong skeleton, recover from exercise or injury, and maintain healthy muscles, but there are much more calorically efficient sources of calcium. While there are some circumstances under which it may be beneficial to give your dog a milk-derived product, giving your dog a bowl full of straight milk is almost always a bad idea. Why? Because most dogs are lactose intolerant.
It may seem strange that your garbage disposal of a dog (who seems to be able to stomach substances of even the most questionable edibility) could be lactose intolerant, but from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense. In the world of mammals, there are far more adult animals who are lactose intolerant than adult animals who are lactose tolerant. This is because, up until around 7,500 years ago, there were no adult mammals who made a habit of drinking milk!
Mammals are born with the ability to digest milk sugar, which is called lactose. But after these animals are weaned, whether that occurs after a few weeks or several years, the body ceases to produce the lactose-digesting enzyme known as lactase. As a result of losing this enzyme, adult mammals can no longer digest milk sugar, and they become lactose intolerant. Even most adult humans have trouble digesting milk products—65% of the global population has a lowered ability to digest lactose once they’ve stopped breastfeeding. This is even higher for dogs, whose wolf ancestors never drank dairy milk.
Though many dogs can stomach small amounts of cheese or yogurt without incident, milk has higher concentrations of lactose, so it takes a far smaller serving to cause problems. If your lactose intolerant dog ingests too much dairy, they may suffer from indigestion, bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, and other digestive problems. You may be able to hear gurgling or bubbling coming from their stomach. Your dog may also refuse to eat or drink anything else. To keep them hydrated and to prevent them from losing too many electrolytes, it may be a good idea to give them some sort of electrolyte replacement product like Pedialyte. If your dog’s symptoms don’t slow down after a while, seek veterinary care.
Things to keep in Mind
While a bowl full of 2% milk isn’t suitable for your dog, there are some milk products formulated specifically for canines, like milk replacers or products designed for weaning puppies. These dairy-derived products are often lactose-free, which means that they are easy to digest for puppies and dogs of all ages. These specially formulated milks are often also far better suited for dogs from a nutritional perspective—they contain higher levels of protein, plus the vitamins and minerals that your dogs need to stay healthy. Dog-friendly milk replacers are a great option for orphaned puppies, or older dogs who need an easy-to-digest, nutritionally sound food source while they recover from sickness, surgery, or severe stress.
In sum, there is really no reason to give your dog a bowl of dairy milk. From a nutritional perspective, it is not high enough in key vitamins and minerals to be worthwhile, and its higher fat and calorie content may only increase your dog’s risk of obesity and illness. But perhaps more pressing is the very likely risk of causing digestive problems—most dogs are lactose intolerant, and pure milk is very high in lactose. If you want to feed your dog dairy, stick with small amounts of yogurt, cheese, or even better, products formulated specifically for canines.