For many years, people thought that milk was the ideal drink for cats. You only have to look at children’s picture books to see countless images of cats lapping up milk. But in recent years, attitudes have changed. Milk is no longer considered a healthy choice for felines.
Most cats are lactose intolerant, which means that they’re unable to digest the lactose (sugar) in milk. These cats should only be given lactose-free milk. Cats that aren’t lactose intolerant can be given a small amount of cow’s milk, but it’s still better to give them yogurt, kefir, or goat’s milk instead.
Although most cats can digest at least one type of milk, that doesn’t mean it’s particularly good for her health. Milk is not a nutritionally balanced product so it should only be given in moderation. We’ll show you what type of milk is safe for cats to drink, and how much they should be given.
Is Milk Nutritionally Healthy for Cats?
Kittens drink milk from their mothers, but adult cats do not need any form of milk to thrive/survive. Milk does contain 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. The water content is also likely to help cats stay hydrated. However, milk lacks many of the amino acids that cats need to survive, so it should never be used as a meal replacement.
Although fresh milk is a high-fat product, the processed milk humans get from the supermarket is relatively low in fat. So, the notion that milk is a high fat, creamy treat for cats is very misguided.
The carbohydrate found in milk is hard for some cats to digest, and it may cause diarrhea. So, even though there are some quality nutrients in cow’s milk, these won’t get absorbed well if the cat experiences diarrhea. The milk will move through the gastrointestinal tract far too quickly.
Why Do Cats Like to Drink Milk?
Most cats love the taste of milk, and that’s no surprise. Kittens drink their mother’s milk when they are young, so drinking milk probably 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 who 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 such as discomfort, flatulence, diarrhea, and weight loss.
Cow’s milk is the most popular milk, but “dairy” can refer to the milk from any mammal (cow, goat, sheep, etc.) Dairy is problematic for some cats because it contains a sugar called lactose.
Lactose is broken down in the gut by an enzyme called lactase. Cats who 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 particularly beneficial for their health, though.
Is My Cat Intolerant to Lactose?
Many cats are lactose intolerant, but some are not. To test a cat’s tolerance, you could give her a teaspoon of milk and monitor her reactions for the following 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 you can check her stool is normal after consuming milk.
If your cat enjoyed the milk and didn’t experience any adverse side effects, this suggests she is not lactose or milk intolerant. If that’s the case, you may decide to treat your cat with a small serving of milk every now and then.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, but remember that milk is not an adequate meal replacement. Even if your cat can tolerate regular cow’s milk, you still may wish to give her milk that’s lower in lactose, just in case her tolerance changes.
Does All Milk Contain Lactose?
All milk from mammals (i.e., dairy) contains lactose when it is 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 contains the least?
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 – the milk most of us have in our fridges – contains the second-highest level of lactose (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 not suitable for cats.
Lactose-free milk for humans tends to contain 95%-98% less lactose than regular cow’s milk so it may be 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 ingredients.
So, in terms of pure milk, goat’s milk has the lowest levels of lactose so 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.
Fermented milk products may also be suitable for cats as it is naturally low in lactose.
Are Fermented Milk Products Safe for Cats?
There is evidence to suggest that fermented milk products are easier for humans to digest (and they may even be suitable for humans with lactose intolerance to consume).
There have not been any clinical studies to test the safety of fermented milk products for cats, but anecdotal evidence suggests these some lactose-intolerant cats find it easy to digest fermented milk products. Fermented milk products include:
- Kefir (thought to be more digestible for cats when made from goat’s milk)
- Sour Cream
- Cheese (should be avoided due to salt content)
- Crème Fraiche
- Cultured Buttermilk
According to this review on NCBI, the lactose content of 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 to your cat again.
- If your cat enjoys and can digest the yogurt, remember that it should only be given as an occasional treat. 1-2 tablespoons once a week would be considered acceptable.
Can You Give Plant Milk to a Cat?
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 Lactose-Free Milk to a Cat?
This type of milk is “lactose-free” because the manufacturers add lactase to the product. This enzyme helps to break down the lactose in the milk, so it is much easier for lactose-intolerant people to digest. Cats and humans who are lactose intolerant have low levels of lactase activity in their bodies.
As many cats are lactose intolerant, it makes sense to give a cat lactose-free milk rather than regular cow’s milk. Indeed, this product is one of the safer milk products you can give to a cat.
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 (and lactose-free milk for humans) 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, there are differences:
- Cat milk tends to be enriched with additional nutrients, such as taurine
- Cat milk may also contain malt extract to improve the taste and enhance digestion
- Cat milk comes in smaller bottles, so it reminds you to only serve it up as an occasional treat
So, there are benefits to cat milk over regular lactose-free milk. If you want to minimize the risks, you’re better off choosing cat milk above any other type of milk.
Can I Give My Cat Milk If They Tolerate It Well?
Most owners would prefer to give their cat regular cow’s milk if they could be sure it wouldn’t harm their cat. After all, this would be more convenient and more cost-effective.
But you need to be confident that your cat is not lactose intolerant. As mentioned, you should give your cat a teaspoon of cow’s milk and monitor their reaction for the following 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.
If there are no adverse side effects, and the cat’s stools are normal, the occasional cow’s milk treat is unlikely to do any harm. However, to be on the safe side, you might choose to give your cat a milk product that’s more digestible such as yogurt or goat’s milk.
The 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 but should be introduced gradually and should be stopped if you notice any adverse reactions.
- Fermented milk products (yogurt, sour cream) may be digestible. The probiotics in fermented products may even help to promote better gastrointestinal health, but there’s currently not enough clinical evidence to be certain.
By far the safest and healthiest milk for cats is specially-formulated cat milk.
How Often Can I Give Milk to My Cat?
Milk (in any form) 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 plenty. 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 fresh water available at all times. Here are some tips and advice to get your cat to drink more water.
It should be remembered that milk doesn’t have many nutritional benefits for cats (especially regular cow’s milk). You might be better off giving your cat something more nutritionally balanced, such as a pouch of luxury pet food as it’s a rich source of protein.