When we think of cats and milk, the image of a kitten sweetly lapping up a bowl of milk readily comes to mind. However, while cats are often illustrated or photographed in this way (just like in our feature photo), this image is actually very misleading.
In reality, cats shouldn't drink milk.
If you’ve ever thought you were giving your cat a lovely treat by offering them a saucer of milk, the truth is you could end up with quite a sick kitty.
So why shouldn't they have it and what are the alternatives? Let’s take a look.
Why Cats And Milk Don’t Mix
In order to break down the sugars in milk (lactose) a specific enzyme known as lactase must be present.
Unfortunately for cats, while they do have this enzyme as kittens, it is no longer present once they are weaned. As soon as kittens begin to consume solid foods, their ability to digest lactose wanes until it is lost altogether, making them lactose intolerant.
Just as in humans that are lactose intolerant, consumption of dairy by your cat could cause them to experience vomiting, stomach pain, gas and diarrhoea.
But My Cat Loves Milk…
Cats are drawn to the fats and protein in milk and will love any treat that offers them the same.
They instinctively eat or drink what is put in front of them and they are unable to understand that consuming it could cause them to become ill.
No matter how much your cat loves milk, it is still better to find an alternative way to treat them. Remember, you are in control of what your cat eats and drinks.
What Milk Can Cats Drink?
With an abundance of dairy-free ‘milks’ on the market and even lactose-free options being available, is there a safe milk alternative for your cat?
While almond milk in small amounts won't harm your cat, there is little nutritional value in it for them. In fact, almond milk can be quite high in fat and often has added sugars, both of which can lead to weight gain.
Just like almond milk, oat milk is considered safe for cats to consume, but is not nutritionally beneficial either. Most commercially produced oat milk has added sugar which combined with the fibre naturally present in oats, can lead to digestive upset.
Goat milk is often favoured as a great option for cats due to the presence of oligosaccharides which help to reduce inflammation in the intestines. It is also nutrient-dense and aids in supporting healthy gut bacteria.
While goat milk does still contain lactose, it has between 20-30% less lactose than whole cow's milk. Regardless, goat milk should only ever be given in moderation. If you notice digestive problems in your cat post-consumption it should be avoided in future.
Very high in fat and rich in oil, coconut milk is not recommended to be given to cats. Not only can coconut milk cause digestive issues in your cat, but the high potassium levels can also lead to kidney troubles.
For these reasons, coconut milk and coconut-based foods should never be offered to your cat.
Soy milk has been a leading alternative to milk for anyone with lactose intolerance for decades. However, while it is lactose-free, it is still unsuitable for your cat.
Containing anti-nutritional factors, the consumption of soy products can actually inhibit the proper utilisation of nutrients in your cat's diet. Additionally, soy contains the sugars stachyose and raffinose which much like lactose, cannot be digested by the enzymes in your cat's gut.
This can once again lead to digestive problems, abdominal discomfort and flatulence in your cat.
Lactose-free milk, as its name suggests, is milk that has had the lactose removed. This is achieved by having lactase enzymes added to the milk which then hydrolyse the lactose into galactose and glucose.
Many pet stores sell lactose-free milk made specifically for pets which is a better choice than giving them the variety intended for humans. This is because lactose-free milk for pets has minimal additives.
While lactose-free milk is a safe option for cats, it should still only be given in moderation.
Does My Cat Need Milk Or Milk Products In Their Diet?
In short, no. Dairy of any kind is not necessary in a cat's diet. This includes not only milk but also:
- Buttermilk and
- Fermented dairy products such as kefir
While dairy is often encouraged in a human diet due to its high calcium content, most animals, cats included, do not need it.
Your cats' calcium needs are better met by the inclusion of things like fish bones, organ tissues, meats and legumes in their diets.
Some cats will need additional calcium during their lifetimes such as those with kidney failure or mother cats who are nursing kittens. If for any reason your cat is deficient in calcium, your vet is likely to suggest a supplement. Adding dairy for additional calcium intake is not recommended.
Is A Small Amount Of Milk Okay?
A small amount of plain, unflavoured milk (no chocolate milk allowed) given to your cat infrequently is not going to cause them any long-term damage.
If you know your cat can tolerate small amounts of milk without it causing digestive issues, even better. However, cats really do not need anything other than water to drink.
Proper hydration in cats is particularly important due to their susceptibility to urinary tract and kidney issues, as such it can seem like a good idea to entice them to consume more fluids by offering milk.
Unfortunately, you could actually cause dehydration through digestive problems caused by milk, such as diarrhoea and vomiting.
As vets, we suggest avoiding milk altogether and instead ensuring there is access to fresh water at all times.
My Cat Had Milk And Is Now Sick, Help!
If you gave your cat some milk not knowing it could make them sick and they’re now unwell, don’t panic. A stomach upset from milk should pass relatively quickly.
You should make sure there is plenty of fresh water available and remove any food until the episode has passed.
If your cat is experiencing vomiting and/or diarrhoea lasting more than a few hours following milk consumption, you should reach out to your vet.
While rare, cats can also be allergic to milk, which is different to simple lactose intolerance. In these cases, signs of lethargy, breathing difficulties, itchy skin and excessive licking may also be present.
Again, if in doubt and your cat does not seem to be recovering as expected, we recommend seeking your vet's advice.
Safe Treats For Your Cat
Of course, we understand that many owners simply want to treat their cats by giving them milk. Thankfully, there are several alternative treats you can give your cat that are both yummy and safe.
Specially made cat treats are made with your cat's nutrition in mind and can form part of a healthy diet when given in moderation. Likewise, some smelly sardines packed in springwater can be an occasional treat that also adds extra moisture to their diet.