Like peanut butter and jelly, and movies with popcorn, cats seem to have an inseparable nostalgic connection to bowls of milk. So why do cats like milk?
Simply put, cats love drinking milk because it contains high amounts of fat and they enjoy the rich, creamy, taste.
But is milk good for cats?
In this article, we’ll deep dive into the following topics:
- Are cats lactose intolerant?
- Should you give your cat milk?
- Is milk bad for cats?
- Can you give your cat almond milk?
- Do cats get calcium from milk?
- Can adult cats drink kitten milk replacer?
- And more!
Are cats really lactose intolerant?
Yes, most cats are lactose intolerant.
Like us, cats are born with the enzyme lactase to help them digest the sugars in milk. But feline breast milk, not cow’s milk. Once kittens turn twelve weeks or three months old their bodies produce fewer enzymes. They lose the ability to digest milk sugars, or lactose, which leads to lactose intolerance.
This means they can’t properly digest dairy products such as cow’s milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt.
The most common sign of lactose intolerance in cats and kittens is digestive upset and gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea.
Should you give your cat milk to drink?
No. There’s no need to give your cat cow’s milk to drink. Most cats are lactose intolerant and don’t benefit from cow’s milk nutritionally.
The only milk cats need is breast milk from their mother when they’re kittens.
Kittens are dependent on their mother’s milk for the vitamins, calcium, and essential fatty acids they need to start to grow and develop properly. Their mother’s milk is also highly concentrated in colostrum, which contains antibodies kittens need to build up an immune system and fight off infections, bacteria, and disease.
That said, once kittens are weaned, they don’t need any milk in their diet.
The only instance when you should give your cat or kitten milk is if you’re bottle-feeding orphaned or neonatal kittens.
If you’re in this situation, you’ll need to buy a specially formulated milk replacer formula for them, one that’s fortified with all the essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients tiny, vulnerable kittens need. Cow’s milk (or goat’s milk) is not a nutritionally adequate substitute and could cause diarrhea, and could even be fatal.
Is cow milk bad for cats?
Yes, cow’s milk is bad for cats.
Dairy products are problematic for two main reasons: they contain lactose which a majority of cats can’t digest, and they’re very high in fat.
High-fat diets can lead to Pancreatitis, a condition in which your cat’s pancreas, a vital organ in their digestive system, becomes inflamed and affects your kitty’s ability to properly digest and absorb nutrients from their food.
Fatty cow’s milk can also lead to significant weight gain. This is a huge problem (no pun intended) in the feline population, with an estimated 60% of cats in the US considered overweight or obese.
What about almond milk?
Apart from cow’s milk, non-dairy plant-based milk like oat, soy, and almond milk are also readily available. The question is, is it ok if your cat drinks almond milk? Is it safer than cow’s milk?
No, almond milk isn’t any better than cow’s milk.
First, nuts could give your kitty tummy troubles. Their sensitive stomachs and very particular digestive system isn’t designed to be able to properly break down almonds or other fat and calorie-dense tree nuts and plant proteins. Although sweet almonds (that is, almonds from trees, not bitter almond extract or essential oils) aren’t toxic to cats they often cause vomiting, diarrhea, and could also contribute to pancreatitis.
Some almond milk also contains thickening gums like carrageenan which is potentially linked to gastrointestinal problems, inflammation, and cancer in cats.
Almond milk could also contain toxic ingredients like vanilla extracts and flavorings that contain traces of alcohol, as well as sweeteners like xylitol.
Does my cat need the calcium from milk?
No. Cats don’t need to consume milk to get calcium. Calcium deficiencies are extremely rare in cats.
According to the Association of American Feed Control Officials, or AAFCO, cats only need 0.6% of their total diet to contain calcium.
This daily requirement is easily met through a balanced diet. Commercial cat foods that meet the requirements of AAFCO nutrient profiles are considered nutritionally complete and contain all of the essential vitamins, minerals, vital amino acids, and nutrients your cat needs–including calcium.
Can I give my adult cat kitten milk formula?
It’s not a good idea to give your adult cat kitten milk formula or kitten milk replacer unless they’re a female cat who has recently given birth and is currently nursing a litter of kittens.
This is because a lactating female cat’s milk is her kitten’s sole source of food for their first eight weeks after birth.
It’s extremely easy for nursing female cats to struggle to sustain enough essential nutrients to be able to keep producing enough milk, especially if she has a large litter, and to take in the higher amounts of calories and fats she needs to ensure her own body’s health.
Veterinarian Robin Downing, DVM, suggests adding “highly-digestible, high-quality kitten formulation” to the nursing mother cat’s diet.
If your feline friend isn’t a lactating mama cat, then it’s not recommended to give them a kitten milk replacer. After all, this is specifically formulated to meet the distinct nutritional needs of kittens! It’s not at all necessary or beneficial for non-nursing adult cats.
What happens if my cat drinks milk?
Because cats are lactose intolerant when they drink milk, the lactose races through their intestines without being digested.
When these unprocessed milk sugars reach your kitty’s colon, the healthy bacterias in their colon interact with the unprocessed sugars, causing the lactose to ferment, resulting in gas, bloating, diarrhea, and other stomach and digestive upset issues, often in as little as eight hours.
What can I give my cat instead of milk?
If you want to give your kitty a treat, there are so many alternatives to cow’s milk that won’t upset their digestive system or make them feel ill!
Catnip and cat grass are two species-appropriate treats that many cats enjoy. These also have the added benefit of giving your kitty extra nutrients and entertaining them. Environmental enrichment is a concern for indoor-only cats, and treating your cat to these feline-safe greens is a great way to combat feline boredom.
You could also give your cat food as treats, keeping in mind that treats should make up only 10 to 15 percent of your kitty’s daily caloric intake. Every major commercial cat food brand has soft or crunchy treats. We love Vital Cat’s Freeze-Dried Chicken Breast, and Orijen’s Six Fish Freeze-Dried cat treats.
Many cat food brands also sell snack-sized packages or pouches of cat food that you can give your kitty intermittently between meals.
What should cats drink?
The most important thing for your kitty companion to drink is water!
Water is an essential nutrient that is crucial to your feline friend’s health. It’s important to make sure that your cat has constant access to clean and fresh water. Without sufficient water intake your kitty loses the ability to properly absorb nutrients, their metabolism slows down, and they face the risk of dehydration and potential organ failure.
An average 10-pound adult cat needs to drink about 7 to 9 ounces of water a day. But because many cats naturally have a low thirst drive it could be tricky to ensure they’re getting their daily requirements.
Investing in an automatic cat water fountain is a great way to encourage your kitty to regularly drink water, as cats are instinctively drawn towards moving, or running, water!
The bottom line on giving your cat milk
Cow’s milk isn’t suitable for cats or kittens.
The high-fat content and the lactose in milk pose health risks for your feline friend and could lead to concerning conditions like pancreatitis, obesity, and chronic digestive tract issues like diarrhea.
There are many alternatives to cow’s milk that make a better treat for your companion cats–cat grass, catnip, and snack-sized pouches of food that meet AAFCO nutrient requirements give your kitty the nutrition they need, the taste they crave, and even double as environmental enrichment!