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

Introduction

Cats are commonly associated with drinking milk. Images of cats lapping up a saucer of milk are ubiquitous in popular culture. But is it actually good for cats to drink milk every day? The answer is more complicated than you may think.

While kittens need milk from their mothers in order to survive, adult cats do not need milk in the same way. In fact, many adult cats are lactose intolerant, meaning they have difficulty digesting the sugar found in milk. Drinking milk can cause digestive upset in cats.

At the same time, small amounts of milk are not necessarily harmful to cats. Some cat owners enjoy treating their cats to a small amount of milk as an occasional snack. The key is moderation. Cats do not need milk daily as part of a balanced diet.

In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at the effects of milk on cats. We’ll examine whether cats can drink milk every day, signs of milk intolerance, better drink options for cats, and when it may be appropriate to give your cat milk.

Do Cats Need Milk?

Kittens need milk from their mother to survive. Mother’s milk provides essential nutrients and antibodies that help kittens grow and stay healthy in their early weeks. Kittens should drink their mother’s milk exclusively for the first 4-6 weeks of life.

However, once cats are weaned and reach adulthood, they no longer need milk. Adult cats are lactose intolerant, meaning they lack the enzyme lactase needed to properly digest the sugar (lactose) in milk [1]. When cats drink regular cow’s milk, it can upset their digestive system and cause diarrhea, vomiting, gas, and abdominal pain.

While some adult cats may enjoy the taste of milk and seem to tolerate small amounts, milk is not an essential or even recommended part of an adult cat’s diet. There are far better hydration and treat options for cats that won’t disrupt their digestive health.

Lactose Intolerance in Cats

Most adult cats (over 90%) are lactose intolerant as they lack the enzyme lactase that digests lactose, the sugar found in milk (source). Lactose intolerance means their digestive systems cannot properly process and absorb lactose. When cats drink regular cow’s milk, the undigested lactose in their intestines draws water into the intestinal tract by osmosis. This leads to diarrhea and upset stomachs. Even small amounts of milk can cause cats gastric distress.

Lactose is found not only in cow’s milk but also goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and other dairy products like cheese, yogurt, etc. The lactose in these dairy products can all trigger digestive problems in lactose intolerant cats (source). Some signs of lactose intolerance in cats include loose stool, diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, and gas. To avoid these unpleasant digestive effects, most adult cats should not have regular milk.

Effects of Milk on Cats

Milk can have negative effects on cats if given in large quantities or regularly. One of the main issues is that milk contains lactose, a sugar that many cats have difficulty digesting properly due to lactose intolerance. When cats drink milk, it can lead to digestive upset like diarrhea and vomiting.

Milk also does not contain the right nutritional balance for cats. While kittens need the fat and calories in milk for growth, adult cats require a high protein, low carb diet. Drinking milk can lead to nutritional deficiencies in cats since milk is lower in protein and minerals like taurine that cats need. Replacing too much water or cat food with milk means cats don’t get enough nutrients from their regular diet.

Some references:

[1] https://www.petmd.com/cat/nutrition/can-cats-drink-milk

[2] https://hastingsvet.com/are-cats-allowed-to-drink-milk-the-answer-is-no-heres-why/

Better Drink Options for Cats

The single best drink for cats is plain, fresh water. Cats need water to stay hydrated and maintain healthy organ function. Providing your cat with unlimited access to clean, fresh water is vital. Use bowls that are easy for your cat to drink from and keep them filled and clean.

While milk is not recommended, there are some acceptable alternatives if your cat wants variety. These include:

  • Broth – Unseasoned broth can provide hydration along with some nutrients. Opt for low-sodium chicken, vegetable, or beef broth.
  • Cat milk – Products made specifically for cats like Purina Friskies Cat Milk are formulated to be digestible and palatable for cats.

Other drinks may be given sparingly as a treat, but should not replace water as the primary drink. Always monitor your cat’s reaction when introducing new drinks.

Treats You Can Give Your Cat

Cats enjoy protein-rich treats that mimic what they would eat in the wild. Meat, fish, and eggs make excellent treats for cats. Some good options include:

  • Small pieces of cooked chicken or turkey
  • Canned tuna or salmon (make sure it’s unseasoned)
  • Scrambled or hard-boiled eggs
  • Dried anchovies or sardines

Fruits and vegetables can also be given in moderation. Try small amounts of:

  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Green beans
  • Carrots

Avoid grapes, raisins, onions, garlic, and chocolate, as these can be toxic to cats. When introducing new treats, give just a tiny portion at first to make sure your cat tolerates it well. Proper treats will provide extra nutrition and enjoyment for your feline friend!

When to Give Milk to Kittens

Kittens should only drink their mother’s milk or a kitten milk replacer formula until they are weaned, which is typically around 4-5 weeks of age (source). After weaning, kittens will gradually transition to eating solid foods.

Between 4-12 weeks of age, kittens can drink milk in moderation as they are transitioning to solid foods. However, cow’s milk should be avoided as kittens are still developing the ability to digest lactose. A kitten milk replacer is a better option during the weaning process (source).

After 12 weeks of age, kittens should be fully transitioned to solid foods and no longer need milk. Continuing to give milk after 12 weeks can lead to digestive upset and diarrhea. The nutrients kittens need can be obtained from high-quality kitten food and water.

Signs Your Cat Shouldn’t Have Milk

There are a few key signs that your cat should avoid drinking milk. The most common signs are diarrhea, vomiting, and gas within 12 hours of consuming milk, according to PetMD. These are clear indicators that your cat is lactose intolerant and unable to properly digest the lactose in milk.

Some additional signs include:

  • Loose, watery stool that may contain undigested milk
  • Abdominal cramping or discomfort
  • Excessive licking or chewing at their hindquarters
  • Flatulence or foul-smelling gas

Cats may also simply refuse to drink milk if they find it upsets their stomach. According to Hastings Vet, some cats will learn to avoid milk after an initial negative reaction. So if your cat does not seem interested in milk, it’s best not to force the issue. Pay attention to these signs and keep milk out of your cat’s diet if they have an adverse response.

Special Cases for Milk

There are some exceptions where milk may be appropriate for cats in limited quantities. Orphaned kittens who are not able to nurse from their mother may need kitten formula, which contains milk, in order to get proper nutrition for growth and development. Reputable kitten formulas are specially formulated to provide balanced nutrition and be gentle on kittens’ digestive systems.

Some adult cats are able to tolerate small amounts of milk as an occasional treat. Lactose-free milk, such as goat’s milk, is easier for many cats to digest. However, milk should never make up a substantial part of an adult cat’s diet. At most, a small treat of a tablespoon or two of lactose-free milk can be given on occasion. But any gastrointestinal distress after consuming milk is a sign that milk should be avoided altogether for that cat.

It’s important to closely monitor a cat’s reaction after giving even small amounts of milk. Each cat is different in their ability to tolerate lactose. While milk may be tolerated in limited quantities by some cats, it should not be a regular part of their diet.

Conclusion

In summary, most adult cats are lactose intolerant and should avoid drinking milk, as it can cause digestive upset like diarrhea and vomiting. Kittens can have milk until they are weaned off their mother’s milk at around 8 weeks old. After that, they too become lactose intolerant. The best drinks for adult cats are water, broth, and kitten milk replacements specifically formulated for cats. Occasionally, small amounts of milk or cream can be given as a treat to cats who tolerate it well. But regular milk drinking should be avoided for the health and comfort of most felines. Cats have no nutritional requirement for milk after kittenhood, and water should make up the majority of their fluid intake.

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