Although the classic depiction of a cat drinking out of a bowl of milk has been reinforced through old pieces of media and cartoons, this is actually a myth which has been thoroughly debunked by veterinary science(1).
Many people don’t know this, however, and believe it’s perfectly fine or even cute to give their cats a saucer of milk. In fact, it’s advised to not give a cat cow’s milk whatsoever as it may even result in deleterious effects on their health.
In this article, we’ll tackle the lingering questions most cat owners have in mind: “Is milk bad for cats?”, and if not entirely, “What kind of milk can cats drink?”
Kittens and Milk
Kittens, like all mammals, subsist entirely on their mother’s milk for the first few weeks of life. This milk is, of course, compositionally different from cow’s milk and is specifically tailored to provide all the appropriate nutrients that a growing kitten will need.
For this reason, a kitten without a mother that needs to be nursed cannot simply drink cow milk instead. It needs a specifically-formulated milk substitute that one can get from any number of pet food providers.
This milk can contain small amounts of lactose because, at a young age, cats’ bodies still create the lactase enzyme(1). Milk contains many nutrients needed for a growing cat, but these only supplements the kibble or canned food provided.
What many may find surprising though is that once weaned, which may be at any time between 4 and 8 weeks depending on the kitten, the levels of naturally-occurring lactase enzyme in its body begin to drop. This also happens in humans once they wean off their mother’s breast milk.
Lactase is what allows the body to properly handle and digest lactose – the main component of dairy milk. Without lactase, the body cannot process it. In fact, once they reach adulthood, most cats are lactose-intolerant.
Cats and Milk
It makes sense that adult cats can’t drink milk because although kittens need to handle their mother’s milk, once grown, cats are 100% carnivorous. Therefore, they have no need to process it.
Are cats lactose-intolerant? As mentioned, once the enzyme falls below a certain level, the cat can no longer properly process lactose, and so drinking milk can result in many of the same issues that a lactose intolerant person may experience.
The decrease in lactase enzyme is variable between each individual cat, so you may find some cats can tolerate milk and may even seem to be interested in drinking it. Experts suggest that this craving for milk seen in some cats may simply be a positive association; almost like comfort food.
Cats can associate milk with safety and protection as they were being cared for entirely by their mother during the time when they drank it. However, once they are past adolescence, milk has little to no nutritional benefits.
So, even for cats that like and can tolerate milk, they may still develop negative effects with continued ingestion; albeit to a lesser degree.
For this reason, you should not make a regular habit of giving your cat milk as a meal. Cats are carnivores with specifically caloric and nutritional needs, which milk does not meet.
One suggestion to help with the milk craving one may see in some cats is to use lactose-free cat milk in their meals or as a treat. But remember to give it sparingly and not as a substitute for a meal.
Additionally, if you want to give your cat milk, raw cow’s milk has been shown to have fewer negative effects on the GI system compared to other forms. Pasteurized milk, in fact, is a big no-no as it has been shown to cause skeletal abnormalities and reproductive issues and for kittens, developmental deficiencies.
Prior to giving milk to your cat, you should consult a vet to see how much you should give your pet and which brands the doctor recommends. Also, take note of the side effects of the milk you are giving as it may cause an allergic reaction that needs immediate attention.
As previously stated, due to the low levels of lactase enzyme found in adult cats, milk cannot be properly digested by the cat’s body. Normally it would be broken down into its component sugars and absorbed from that point.
When this doesn’t occur properly in cats and humans with lactose intolerance, the lactose goes into the large intestine where it can actually have negative effects on the bacterial flora of the animal. Symptoms of lactose intolerance in cats include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, gas, lack of appetite or abdominal swelling.
One may also see increased thirst, dehydration, increased heart rate or even dry gums. If your cat exhibits these symptoms, you should get them to a vet, especially as ongoing diarrhea and/or vomiting can result in dangerous levels of dehydration.
A vet will be able to determine if the symptoms are due to a more serious health problem or just the result of milk intolerance.
A particularly unwell cat may need intravenous fluids administered. Of course, the first recommendation in situations like this is to discontinue all milk from the cat’s diet.
One may also be asking themselves: if dairy milk is not suitable for cats, are any of the many popular milk alternatives safe? The short answer is no.
- Can cats drink almond milk?
Almond milk is not a good milk substitute. Veterinarians advise that the high oil and fat content in it can cause issues for cats.
An ideal cat diet is high in protein and vitamins, so these other nutrients can result in vomiting and diarrhea. It has even been reported that eating almonds can cause pancreatitis in cats.
Moreso, although almonds are not a type of nut that can trigger your pet’s allergies, almond milk still has lactose which kitties cannot really digest in large amounts.
So, can felines drink almond milk? Yes, but only in small amounts. If you give too much, it can cause an upset stomach which can also lead to diarrhea.
- Can cats drink coconut milk?
Although a beneficial drink for humans, unfortunately, coconut milk is a harmful liquid for our kitties. Some cats are sensitive to nuts and this comes from one. It can trigger allergic reactions which can lead to other serious illnesses.
Also, coconut milk has similarly high levels of fat and oil like almond milk and cannot be properly digested.
- Can cats drink soy milk?
Soy milk should never be given to a cat. Cats are obligate carnivores and so do not have the appropriate enzymes to process plant proteins; soy included.
Not only would it cause negative GI symptoms, but it has absolutely no nutritional value compared to what a cat needs; so there really is no point in giving it to a cat. Some cats can even be allergic to soy proteins, so it is just not advisable.
One could argue that this does not have any lactose in it which would seem to make it a good alternative to cow’s milk. However, soy milk is usually mixed with artificial sweeteners that can cause diabetes, tooth decay, and obesity in cats.
- Can cats drink cow milk?
Cats enjoy the sweetness and thickness of the cream that rises above the milk that has been collected or processed from cows. Though they find it delicious, it is not healthy for them at all as there is too much lactose in this drink. They have difficulty digesting the sugar and end up with an upset stomach or diarrhea.
- Can cats drink rice milk?
Cats are obligate carnivores and rice or grain products are of no use to them. This type of milk also has a lot of additives that can lead to bad health complications so we suggest that you avoid giving this to your cat.
- Can cats drink goat milk?
This type of milk is the usual alternative for kittens if you can’t afford to purchase Kitten Milk Replacers (KMRs). However, you should feed them goat milk only in small portions as they’ll be getting a lot of lactose if they drink this in large amounts.
- Can cats drink lactose-free milk?
Judging by the name, some pet parents believe that this could be a great alternative to milk. Many cat owners give a saucer of this as a treat from time to time.
But should cats drink lactose-free milk? The answer is both yes and no.
With lactose-free milk, there’s no need for your fur baby to produce as many lactase enzymes as it can because there’s no lactose to break down. However, there are other additives in this type of milk that can cause sickness in cats.
What Should My Cat Drink?
As stated previously, very occasional helpings of milk which should ideally be lactose-free for cats that truly indicate a preference for it is okay. It should comprise a very tiny portion of the cat’s overall diet.
In general, however, milk provides nothing nutritionally beneficial for cats, so it doesn’t need to be given. Water is the much more important liquid and essential to a cat’s diet and overall wellbeing. So this, above all else, should be provided daily and not replaced with milk.