Do Cats Really Need Milk? The Truth About Cats and Dairy

Do Cats Really Need Milk?

Cats lapping up a saucer of milk is an iconic image. Many cat owners see milk as a natural treat or addition to their feline’s diet. However, milk consumption is a controversial topic among feline nutrition experts. While kittens do thrive on their mother’s milk, the nutritional needs of mature cats are quite different. Giving milk to adult cats may lead to digestive upset and other health issues. In this article, we’ll explore whether cats truly need cow’s milk, examine the risks, and suggest healthier alternatives to support your cat’s wellbeing.

Milk and Cats’ Digestive Systems

Lactose is a sugar found in milk and dairy products that requires the enzyme lactase to properly digest. Unlike humans, most cats’ bodies do not continue to produce lactase after weaning. This means adult cats lack the ability to break down lactose, making them lactose intolerant. Lactose intolerance in cats is estimated to affect over 70% of the adult cat population according to research.

When cats drink milk, the undigested lactose travels to their intestines and serves as food for gut bacteria. As the bacteria digest the lactose, they produce gas which can lead to uncomfortable bloating and flatulence. The undigested lactose also pulls water into the intestines through a process called osmosis. This results in loose, watery stool or diarrhea.

cat suffering from lactose intolerance

Some cats may exhibit vomiting or lack of appetite when suffering from lactose intolerance. The severity of symptoms depends on the individual cat and amount of lactose consumed.

Kittens vs Adult Cats

Lactose, the main carbohydrate in milk, requires an enzyme called lactase to digest it properly. Young kittens produce a higher amount of lactase than adult cats, which allows them to break down and process the lactose in their mother’s milk more easily.

According to Purina, kittens have specially designed digestive systems that disappear as they mature, making it difficult for adult cats to digest milk.

As cats grow older, the amount of lactase their bodies produce significantly decreases. By the time cats reach adulthood, they no longer produce enough lactase to properly digest the lactose in cow’s milk.[1]

This means that while kittens can drink milk without issues, adult cats often experience digestive upset, gas, bloating and diarrhea when consuming cow’s milk regularly. Their bodies simply can’t break down and absorb the lactose molecule properly.

Health Risks

Drinking milk, especially cow’s milk, can cause several health issues for cats. Cow’s milk contains lactose, a sugar that cats struggle to digest properly due to low amounts of the enzyme lactase that breaks down lactose. This leads to an upset stomach and digestion problems like diarrhea, vomiting, gas, and bloating.

According to the experts at Hill’s Pet Nutrition, up to 90% of cats experience some degree of lactose intolerance after weaning. Consuming milk can irritate their digestive tract and cause painful stomach cramps. The undigested lactose in the milk acts as fuel for bad bacteria to grow in the intestines, resulting in diarrhea. Additionally, the gas buildup from undigested milk can potentially lead to dangerous bloating.

cat with diarrhea from drinking milk

Kittens under 4 weeks old still have some ability to digest lactose as they wean, but most adult cats have lost that ability. Giving milk to adult cats, even just a bowl or saucer, risks causing digestive distress. Better options are available that provide hydration and nutrition without adverse effects.

Better Alternatives

While cow’s milk is not ideal for cats, there are better options to consider:

Cat-formulated milk is designed to be digestible for cats. Brands like CatSip make milk using low-fat milk with added lactase to help cats digest the milk sugar lactose. This allows cats to enjoy the taste of milk without the side effects.

cat drinking cat-formulated milk

Bone broth is another alternative, providing cats with hydration and nutrients without the lactose found in regular milk. Many cats find the smell and taste appealing. Just make sure to use bone broth made specifically for cats and avoid seasonings.

Plain water is the healthiest drink for cats. Cats are adapted to get most of their moisture from their food. But providing a fresh bowl of water encourages drinking and supports kidney health. Opt for stainless steel, ceramic or glass bowls instead of plastic.

While cow’s milk is not ideal for adult cats, there are better options to provide hydration and nutrition without digestive upset. Cat-formulated milk, bone broth, and plain water are healthier alternatives cats will enjoy.

Tips for Transitioning

When transitioning cats off of milk, especially kittens, it’s important to do so slowly and gradually. Abruptly taking milk away could lead to nutritional deficiencies, hypoglycemia, diarrhea, and other health issues (

Start by diluting the milk with water, adding more water each day. Over the course of a week or two, transition to milk replacer formulated for kittens. Then, over another week, mix in wet or dry kitten food with the milk replacer until the kitten is eating solid food consistently.

It’s ideal to wean kittens around 4-6 weeks old once their teeth have grown in more. By 8 weeks, they should be completely weaned onto solid food and not need milk at all (

For adult cats accustomed to milk, also phase it out slowly over a week or two by watering it down. Monitor for any gastrointestinal upset. Providing more playtime and affection can help the transition.

The key is gradual change and monitoring the cat’s health. Sudden weaning can be harmful. But over time, cats can thrive without milk.

Cats’ Natural Diet

Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their natural diet in the wild consists almost entirely of meat ( Studies of feral cats show that their diet is at least 50-95% animal prey like rodents, birds, insects, and reptiles (

cats hunting mice and birds in the wild

Cats’ bodies are designed to metabolize protein and fat efficiently, but not carbohydrates. Their digestive systems produce only low levels of amylase, the enzyme needed to digest plant starches and sugars. Forcing cats to eat a carbohydrate-rich diet can lead to obesity, diabetes, and other health issues over time.

The ideal natural diet for cats consists of the following:

  • High protein (at least 50% of calories)
  • Moderate fat (30-40% of calories)
  • Low carbohydrate (less than 10% of calories)
  • Moisture-rich foods with at least 60-70% water content

This type of meat-based, low carb diet provides optimal nutrition for cats to thrive.

Commercial Cat Food

There are two main types of commercial cat food available – wet and dry. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Wet or canned cat food generally has a higher moisture content than dry food, which can help with hydration. It also tends to contain more animal protein. However, wet food is usually more expensive per serving than dry food, and it needs to be refrigerated after opening. Some cats may reject chilled or reheated wet food. According to New York Magazine, top wet cat food brands include Purina Pro Plan, Hill’s Science Diet, and Wellness.

Dry or kibble cat food is more affordable and convenient to store and serve. It has a long shelf life compared to wet food. Some formulas are designed to help clean cats’ teeth. However, dry food contains less moisture, so cats need to drink more water separately. Look for kibbles with high protein and low carbohydrates. Reviews suggest Nutro Wholesome Essentials, Blue Buffalo Wilderness, and Taste of the Wild as quality dry cat foods.

Ultimately the choice between wet and dry food depends on your cat’s preferences and needs. Many cat owners find the best solution is to mix wet and dry food. Consult your veterinarian for tailored dietary recommendations.

Homemade Cat Food

Homemade cat food can be a healthy and nutritious alternative to store-bought cat food. When formulating homemade recipes, it’s important to create balanced meals that meet cats’ nutritional requirements. According to veterinarians, homemade cat food should contain approximately 40% meat, 50% vegetables, and 10% carbohydrates and supplements.

Here are some vet-approved recipes and guidelines for making nutritious homemade cat food:

Chicken and Rice Recipe

This recipe from Know Better Pet Food uses simple ingredients like chicken, rice, and vegetables:

  • 1 pound ground chicken
  • 1 cup cooked white rice
  • 1/2 cup cooked carrots
  • 1/2 cup cooked peas

Cook the chicken thoroughly, then mix all ingredients together. Portion into meal-sized containers and refrigerate.

Fish and Sweet Potato Recipe

For cats that prefer fish, this recipe from GetSetPet uses salmon and sweet potatoes:

  • 5 ounces cooked salmon, deboned
  • 1 small cooked sweet potato
  • 2 tablespoons cooked spinach
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon calcium carbonate powder

Mash ingredients together, adding a splash of water if needed. Refrigerate unused portions.

When making homemade cat food, be sure to use fresh ingredients and consult your veterinarian about supplements to ensure complete nutrition.


In summary, while milk does not provide any nutritional benefits to adult cats, a small amount is not necessarily harmful either. Kittens can benefit from milk for the extra calories and nutrients to support growth and development. However, they should be gradually weaned onto solid food over time. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they require a high protein, meat-based diet. The best options are a complete and balanced commercial cat food, a homemade recipe formulated by a veterinarian, or even raw food diets under veterinary guidance. Avoid giving cats too much milk, especially skim or low fat varieties, as it may cause digestive upset or deficiencies over time. Focus on providing cats a nutritious diet based primarily on quality animal-based proteins for their optimal health and wellbeing.

Some final tips include transitioning cats slowly if you do provide milk, limiting the amount to a few tablespoons at most, and monitoring their reaction. Provide plenty of fresh water as the primary beverage instead. And as always, consult your veterinarian if you have any concerns about your cat’s nutritional needs.

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