For many years, people believed that milk was good for cats. You only have to look at children’s picture books to see countless images of cats gleefully drinking milk. But in recent years, scientific research has caused attitudes to change. Milk is no longer considered a healthy drink for felines.
Most cats are lactose intolerant, so they cannot digest the lactose (sugar) in milk. The side-effects include diarrhea, gas, constipation, bloating, and abdominal pain. So, cats should only drink lactose-free milk. Cats that aren’t lactose intolerant can be given a small amount of cow’s milk, but yogurt, kefir, or goat’s milk are far better choices.
Although most cats can digest at least one type of milk, that doesn’t mean that they should drink milk. It isn’t nutritionally balanced, so it should only be given to cats in moderation. In this guide, we’ll let you know what type of milk is safe for cats to drink, and how much milk should be given.
Is Milk Healthy for Cats?
Kittens drink milk from their mothers, but adult cats do not need milk to thrive. Milk has some beneficial ingredients, but it’s not necessary to give your cat milk. The following nutrients are found in regular cow’s milk:
- Water (around 85%)
- Carbohydrate – Lactose (around 5%)
- Fat (0.5 – 4%)
- Proteins – Casein and Whey (around 3-4%)
- Vitamins A, C, D, E, B1, B2 and, B6
- Biological proteins and enzymes (<1%)
Cats will benefit from the vitamins and calcium found in milk. Also, the water content is likely to help cats stay hydrated. However, milk lacks many amino acids that cats need to survive, so it should never be seen as a meal replacement.
Although fresh milk is a high-fat product, the skimmed milk that humans get from the supermarket can be relatively low in fat. So, the notion that milk is a high fat, creamy treat for cats is very misguided.
The carbohydrates found in milk are hard for some cats to digest, and may cause diarrhea. So, even though there are nutrients in cow’s milk, these won’t get absorbed if the cat has a bout of diarrhea. The milk will move through the gastrointestinal tract far too quickly for that to happen.
Why Do Cats Like to Drink Milk?
Most cats love the taste of milk, and that’s no surprise. As stated, kittens drink their mother’s milk when they are young, so drinking it likely brings back feelings of comfort, safety, and protection.
Milk fills your cat’s stomach quickly, so it is an efficient way to get enough calories. Also, milk is 85% water, so cats that enjoy wet food may instinctively be drawn to milk.
Are All Cats Lactose Intolerant?
More than half of adult cats are intolerant to milk (dairy). This means they find it hard to process milk and may experience adverse reactions.
Cow’s milk is the most popular, but “dairy” can refer to the milk from any mammal (cow, goat, sheep, etc.) As discussed, dairy is a problem for some cats because it contains a sugar called lactose.
Lactose is broken down in the gut by an enzyme called lactase. Cats that are lactose intolerant have very few lactase enzymes, so they find it hard to break down the lactose in milk.
However, according to Wiley, not all cats are milk intolerant due to lactose intolerance. Some cats are overly sensitive to casein (a protein in milk), and a small number of cats may have an undiagnosed intestinal disease that affects their ability to digest milk.
It’s true that some cats are neither lactose nor milk intolerant and can digest milk effectively. That’s not to say that milk is beneficial either.
Is My Cat Intolerant to Lactose?
To test a cat’s tolerance, you could give it a small amount of milk and monitor its reactions for the next 24 hours. Any of the following symptoms would indicate milk/lactose intolerance:
- Reduced appetite
Ideally, you should wait until your cat goes to the toilet so that you can check its stool is normal after consuming milk.
If your cat enjoyed the milk and didn’t experience any adverse side effects, this suggests that it is not lactose or milk intolerant. If that’s the case, you may decide to treat your cat to a small serving of milk occasionally.
Remember, milk is not an adequate meal replacement. Even if your cat can tolerate drinking regular cow’s milk, you still may wish to give it milk that’s lower in lactose, just in case its tolerance changes.
Does All Milk Contain Lactose?
All milk from mammals (dairy) contains lactose in its natural state. However, the milk of different mammals contains varying amounts of lactose.
Also, lactose is reduced or removed from some types of milk to make it more digestible. So, which milk contains the most lactose and which milk contains the least lactose?
Sheep’s milk contains high levels of lactose (and casein) compared to other kinds of milk. It won’t be suitable for a lactose-intolerant cat, or a cat with a casein allergy.
However, when sheep’s milk is fermented into cheese or yogurt, the lactose is almost eliminated. This milk also contains high levels of linoleic acid and other beneficial fatty acids.
Regular cow’s milk contains the second-highest lactose level (around 5%), so it will be difficult for most cats to digest.
Goat’s milk has 20-30% less lactose than cow’s milk. It is also richer in vitamin A than cow’s milk. As such, it is probably easier for cats to digest.
Plant milk such as soy, oat, and almond are lactose-free, but they are unsuitable for cats.
Lactose-free milk for humans tends to contain 95%-98% less lactose than regular cow’s milk, so it is much easier for cats to digest.
Lactose-Free Milk for Cats
This is similar to human-grade lacto-free milk, but it is enriched with extra vitamins and minerals.
In terms of pure milk, goat’s milk has the lowest lactose levels, which means that it will be digestible for some cats.
However, if your cat is lactose intolerant, goat’s milk may still cause digestive issues, so you should consider a lactose-free product.
Are Fermented Milk Products Safe for Cats?
Evidence suggests that fermented milk products are easier for humans to digest. Fermented milk products ‘may’ also be suitable for cats as they’re naturally low in lactose.
There have not been any clinical studies to test the safety of fermented milk products for cats. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests these some lactose-intolerant cats find it easier to digest fermented milk products. Fermented milk products include:
- Sour Cream
- Crème Fraiche
- Cultured Buttermilk
According to the NCBI, the lactose content in milk products reduces significantly after it has been fermented. In one of the trials, a yogurt fermented for 11 days contained 2.3g lactose per 100g lactose, whereas the nonfermented milk contained 4.8g lactose per 100g.
Fermented milk products may also have a therapeutic effect on the gut. It’s thought that the live bacteria (probiotics) in fermented milk products may also soothe and strengthen the gut, thereby improving digestion and making it easier to digest lactose in the long term.
There’s little evidence to support this research, but it might be something to look out for. If you do choose to offer your cat some yogurt (or another fermented product), follow these tips:
- Make sure the yogurt doesn’t have any added sugar or salt.
- Offer your cat one teaspoon of yogurt. Wait 24 hours to see if any symptoms occur. Check your cat’s litter box to see if their poop still looks normal. If any negative symptoms occur, do not offer this food again.
- If your cat enjoys and can digest the yogurt, it should only be offered as an occasional treat. 1-2 tablespoons a week is considered acceptable.
Can You Give Plant Milk to Cats?
In recent years, sales of dairy-free milk have skyrocketed. Almond milk, coconut milk, and oat milk are popular. You might feel tempted to share these products with your cat, but is it a good idea?
Plant milk does not offer cats many nutritional benefits. Like cow’s milk, plant milk contains a lot of water, added B vitamins, and added calcium. However, this milk often contains the following unhealthy ingredients:
- Sugar – “Sweetened” plant milk should never be given to cats, even in tiny amounts, as it contains too much sugar. This can lead to weight gain, tooth decay, diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems.
- Oils & Thickeners– Cats may struggle to digest the oils and thickeners (such as vegetable oil and carrageenan) found in some of the cheaper types of plant milk. This may lead to diarrhea.
- Additives and Preservatives – Plant milk often contains additives, and these may be difficult for your cat to digest.
- Salt Content – The more expensive kinds of plant milk (those free from additives and artificial flavorings) tend to contain 3-4% sea salt to enhance the flavor. This might not sound a lot, but it can be dehydrating for your cat.
The occasional lick is not harmful, but you should not encourage your cat to drink plant milk.
Can You Give Cats Lactose-Free Milk?
This type of milk is “lactose-free” because the manufacturers add lactase to the product. This enzyme helps break down the lactose in the milk, so it is easier for lactose-intolerant people to digest. Cats and humans who are lactose intolerant have lower levels of lactase activity in their bodies.
Is Cat Milk the Same as Lactose-Free Milk?
Specialist cat milk is also considered “lactose-free” milk because it contains the added enzyme lactase. Cat milk contains about 0.2% lactose.
Cat milk costs a bit more than lactose-free human-grade milk, so you might be wondering whether there’s any benefit to cat milk. Are there any differences between cat milk and lactose-free milk? While these products are very similar, cat milk is different in the following ways:
- It is enriched with additional nutrients, such as taurine. A cat’s body is unable to produce taurine, so it must come from dietary sources.
- It may contain malt extract to improve taste and enhance digestion.
- It comes in smaller bottles, which reminds you to only serve it up to cats as an occasional treat.
Can I Feed My Cat Milk If It’s Tolerated?
You need to be confident that your cat is not lactose intolerant. As mentioned, you should give your cat a small amount of cow’s milk and monitor its reaction for the next 24 hours.
If you see any signs of bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, vomiting, or lethargy, regular cow’s milk should never be given to your cat again.
If there are no adverse side-effects, and the cat’s stools remain normal, the occasional treat is unlikely to do any harm. However, you might choose a milk product that’s more digestible, such as yogurt or goat’s milk.
Safest Milk for Lactose-Intolerant Cats
If your cat enjoys the taste of milk, there are some options:
- Human-grade lactose-free milk and goat’s milk may be digestible for lactose-intolerant cats. However, it should be introduced gradually, and stopped completely if you notice any adverse reactions.
- Fermented milk products (yogurt, sour cream) may be digestible. The probiotics in fermented products may help gastrointestinal health, but there’s not enough clinical evidence to be certain.
The safest and healthiest milk for cats is specially-formulated cat milk.
How Often Can I Give Milk to My Cat?
Milk should only be given to cats in moderation. Milk should be considered a “treat” for cats who enjoy the flavor. When serving milk to your cat, don’t overestimate the portion size. A couple of tablespoons is more than sufficient. Also, keep it as a once-a-week or once-a-fortnight treat.
Water is the most crucial fluid for cats, so make sure there is always fresh water available. Here is some advice to get your cat to drink more water.
Milk doesn’t have many nutritional benefits for cats, especially regular cow’s milk. Give your cat something more nutritionally balanced, such as a pouch of luxury pet food because it’s a rich source of protein.