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Is Milk Good for Cats?

Cats and Milk

We're all familiar with the storybook image of a cat lapping up a bowl of milk. Cats probably first developed a taste for cow's milk from hanging out in dairy barns, where milk was a coveted treat. What was not to like about this rich and vaguely sweet substance? But milk is not a natural part of an adult cat's diet, and in some cases it's not good for them.

Cats Are Usually Lactose Intolerant

Cats may like milk, but milk doesn't always like them. This is because, like some people, most cats are lactose intolerant once they are adults. This means that they lack sufficient quantities of a special enzyme called lactase to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk. Undigested sugars cause havoc in the intestines, including gas, cramping, and diarrhea.

Lactose intolerance is a fact of life for most adult mammals. Baby animals have lactase in their intestines to digest their mother's milk. But once they are weaned, lactase levels drop. This isn't a problem in nature because adult animals would have no reason to drink milk. In our domesticated world, cats drink milk only because we offer it to them.

Can Kittens Have Milk?

Cow's milk is never OK for kittens. While young kittens can handle the lactose just fine, cow's milk lacks many of the essential nutrients, protein, and antibodies a growing kitten needs. Kittens should drink their own mother's milk if at all possible. If not, they should be fed a milk replacer formulated especially for kittens, available at most pet stores.

The Skinny on Soy Milk

People often question whether soy milk is a safe alternative to cow's milk for their cat. Here are some considerations:

  • Soy milk often contains added sugar, to improve the taste for humans. This is not ideal for your cat.
  • Some cats are allergic to soy protein. Like cow's milk, it can cause tummy troubles as well as itchy skin.
  • Soy products contain isoflavones, phyto-estrogens, and other chemicals that may disrupt your cat's hormones if given in large quantities.
  • Soy, a vegetable protein, is not a natural part of a cat's carnivorous diet.

Nut milks such as almond can also cause upset stomach and diarrhea in cats, and those varieties with added sugar are not good for them.

If your cat has been enjoying soy or almond milk from the bottom your cereal bowl, don't panic. For most cats, a few licks now and then are fine. If in doubt, consult your veterinarian.

Can My Particular Cat Have Cow's Milk?

If you still want to give your adult cat milk but don't know if he or she can handle lactose, try the following: offer your cat 1-2 tablespoons of cow's milk and monitor him closely over the next 12 hours. If no tummy troubles such as diarrhea, vomiting, or decreased appetite develop, then your cat can safely drink milk as an occasional treat. But milk should still only be given in moderation. Treats, including milk products, should not comprise more than 5-10% of a cat's regular diet. Cow's milk should never be a cat's primary food source because it lacks essential nutrients.

Alternatives to Cow's Milk for Cats

If your cat is lactose intolerant but enjoys milk nonetheless, there are several options you can try. Plain yogurt usually contains less lactose and may be better tolerated by your cat than milk. Lactose-free milk from the supermarket can often work well. The jury is still out on soy milk (see box). Another option is a feline milk substitute called Catsip. This product is made from low-fat milk with lactase added to help digest the milk sugar.

Remember that milk should only ever be used as a treat and never a substitute for proper nutrition.

For more information on milk and other appropriate treats for your cat, it's best to consult with your veterinarian.

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