My Cat Drinks Milk – Should I be Concerned?

Is Milk Safe for Cats to Drink?

The short answer is no – milk is generally not safe for adult cats to drink regularly. Cats are lactose intolerant, meaning they lack the enzyme lactase that breaks down lactose sugars in milk (For Paws, 2021). This causes digestive upset when they consume dairy products.

Kittens are actually able to digest milk because they still produce lactase to process lactose until they are weaned. But as cats mature, they stop making this enzyme. While small amounts of milk occasionally may not cause issues, regular milk drinking can lead to diarrhea, vomiting, gas, and abdominal pain in cats (Zoetis Petcare, 2022).

Some sources claim up to 90% of cats have some degree of lactose intolerance (CTVSH, 2022). So while a few cats may enjoy milk without problems, it’s best to avoid giving milk to cats, especially on a regular basis.

Signs of Milk Intolerance

If your cat is lactose intolerant or allergic to milk, they will likely show some signs of discomfort after consuming milk. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea – Milk can cause loose, watery stools in cats soon after ingesting it. Diarrhea may persist for 24-48 hours if the cat continues to drink milk (1).
  • Vomiting – Some cats may vomit repeatedly after drinking milk. The vomit may be clear fluid or contain undigested milk (2).
  • Gassiness – Lactose intolerance can cause excessive gas production and flatulence in cats (3).
  • Bloating – A distended, hard abdomen is a sign of bloating and gastrointestinal upset from milk (1).
  • Stomach pain – Felines may vocalize, stop eating, or show signs of abdominal tenderness if milk causes stomach cramps or pain.

In most cases, stopping milk intake will lead to resolution of these symptoms within 12-24 hours. However, ongoing diarrhea, vomiting or lack of appetite are signs to see the veterinarian.


Health Risks of Milk

Drinking milk can pose several health risks for cats. One of the biggest concerns is diarrhea leading to dehydration (1). Most cats are lactose intolerant, meaning they lack the enzyme needed to properly digest lactose, the sugar found in milk (2). When cats drink regular cow’s milk, the undigested lactose can pass through the intestines, drawing water into the bowel and leading to diarrhea.

Diarrhea can quickly lead to dehydration, especially in kittens and smaller cats. Left untreated, dehydration can become life-threatening. According to PetMD, signs of dehydration in cats include lethargy, sunken eyes, dry gums, weakness, and lack of skin elasticity (1). Dehydration requires urgent veterinary treatment to restore fluid levels.

Another risk of milk is nutritional deficiencies if a cat starts refusing other foods in favor of milk (2). Milk alone does not provide complete and balanced nutrition for cats. Essential nutrients like protein, vitamins, and minerals may be lacking. This can lead to malnutrition over time.

Finally, the high fat and calorie content of milk can easily lead to obesity if given regularly (3). Obesity predisposes cats to many other health problems like diabetes, arthritis, heart disease and more. It’s best to avoid excess calories from milk that can contribute to weight gain.

Lactose-Free Milk Alternatives

While regular cow’s milk contains lactose that can upset a cat’s stomach, there are some lactose-free options that may be better tolerated:

Talk to your vet if you’re considering switching your cat to a lactose-free milk alternative.

Other Hydration Options

In addition to providing fresh water, there are several other ways to help keep your cat hydrated:

Wet cat food – Canned/wet cat food has a high moisture content, usually around 75-85%. Feeding wet food, especially partial or full canned diets, can increase your cat’s overall fluid intake (PetMD).

Cat water fountains – Fountains with flowing water encourage drinking by mimicking natural drinking sources. The sound of running water triggers cats’ instincts to drink more. Choose fountains with a water filter to keep the water fresh (Brook Farm Veterinary Center).

Adding water to dry food – Simply adding some water to your cat’s kibble increases the moisture content. Allow the food to absorb the water for a few minutes before serving.

Broths – Offer small amounts of unsalted broths or tuna water, which can provide essential electrolytes.

Ice cubes – Providing a few lickable ice cubes made with broth or plain water can boost fluid intake.

Transitioning Away From Milk

Gradually transitioning your kitten away from milk is important for their digestive health. Try these tips for slowly reducing their milk intake:

Slowly reduce the amount of milk offered at each feeding. For example, decrease from 1/4 cup to 1/8 cup increments over the course of a week or two. This gradual reduction allows their body to adjust. Be patient and persistent during this process.

Distract your kitten with playtime when they seem eager for milk. Kittens are very energetic, so engage them in active play with toys when they go looking for milk. This redirects their attention. Interactive play also supports the weaning process.

Offer lactose-free milk alternatives. Lactose-free dairy milk or plant-based milk like coconut or almond milk can help meet their nutritional needs while avoiding lactose. Slowly transition between regular milk and the lactose-free options.

When to See the Vet

If your cat experiences symptoms of lactose intolerance like vomiting or diarrhea for more than 48 hours after drinking milk, it’s important to see your veterinarian.

Severe vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and other complications, so persistent symptoms require medical attention. According to the Animal Emergency Care of Braselton [1], cats that experience severe gastrointestinal upset after drinking milk often need intravenous fluid therapy to recover.

You should also bring your cat to the vet if they seem lethargic or have lost their appetite after drinking milk. These can be signs of a more serious reaction. As Four Paws explains, a cat experiencing severe diarrhea after drinking milk may become dangerously dehydrated and require an infusion [2].

It’s always best to have a veterinarian assess your cat if lactose intolerance symptoms last more than a day or two. They can provide supportive care and determine if your cat has any other underlying conditions contributing to their milk intolerance.

Preventing Future Milk Drinking

The key to preventing your cat from drinking milk in the future is to limit their access to unattended milk. Here are some tips:

Don’t leave glasses or bowls of milk unattended where your cat can get to them. It’s best to only have milk out when you are present and supervising.

Keep your cat out of the refrigerator by keeping foodstorage areas like the fridge, pantry, and trash cans closed and locked. Use child locks if needed.

Consider using unattractive scents or tastes to deter your cat from milk. Spray citrus or bitter apple sprays on milk cartons or plastic wrap over glasses.

Redirect your cat’s energy into more positive outlets like playtime, puzzle toys, or cat grass. This will curb their curiosity for exploring forbidden spaces.

Be consistent and don’t give up. It may take time and diligence to break the habit of milk-drinking. Stick with it and your cat will eventually learn milk is off limits.

Milk Myth Busting

There are several common myths and misconceptions around cats and milk.

One myth is that milk strengthens cats’ bones. This is false – milk does not actually strengthen feline bones. Cats get all the nutrients they need from a meat-based diet.

Another myth is that all cats love milk. In fact, many cats are lactose intolerant – around 70% of adult cats can’t properly digest milk. The lactose gives them tummy troubles.

A third myth is that milk is a necessary part of a cat’s diet. This is not true – kittens need milk from their mother when young, but adult cats do not need milk at all. The optimal diet for felines is meat-based, not dairy-based.

The bottom line is that despite the myths, milk is not essential for cats. Most cats will do better without milk. Meat-based cat foods provide all the nutrients they need.

The Bottom Line

In summary, the key points are that most cats are lactose intolerant as adults and drinking milk regularly can cause stomach upset and other gastrointestinal issues. While kittens can typically tolerate some milk, adult cats should avoid it. If your cat loves milk, slowly transition them to lactose-free milk alternatives or other hydration options. Look for signs of intolerance like vomiting, diarrhea or gassiness after drinking milk. Though an occasional small treat of milk likely won’t harm an adult cat, it’s best to avoid making it a regular part of their diet. Providing access to fresh water at all times is the healthiest way to keep your cat hydrated.

Milk can cause digestive upset in cats due to the lactose sugar it contains. Their bodies struggle to break this down. Symptoms like diarrhea, bloating and gas can show up shortly after ingesting milk. It’s best to transition your cat slowly away from milk and onto more suitable hydration options for cats if they regularly drink milk.

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