It’s such a classic image–the cat lapping lovingly at a bowl of milk. But while many kitties do enjoy it, milk isn’t really something you should give your cat.
Sure, kittens drink their mother’s milk, but felines (like all other mammals, humans included) lose some of their ability to digest milk once they wean. In addition, milk from cows has a different ratio of casein and whey proteins than cat’s milk; only milk from cats is perfectly suited to a kitten’s nutritional needs.
If you have an orphaned young kitten or one that can’t nurse for some other reason, the milk people drink is not an adequate substitute. The best alternative to mother’s milk in such instances is a specially formulated milk replacement for kittens.
Here’s a little more information about why milk is generally inadvisable for cats:
Cats Are Often Lactose Intolerant
Milk contains a sugar known as lactose, and lactose is only properly broken down in the digestive tract by an enzyme called lactase. Post-nursing, cats stop producing significant quantities of lactase. They do produce some, but not enough to handle milk as part of the diet.
However, different cats can tolerate different amounts of lactose. So, while some can’t have any milk without getting sick, others can have small quantities occasionally without adverse effects. You’d have to see whether your cat can tolerate any, and how much.
When cats consume more lactose than they can digest, they experience gastrointestinal upset, gas, bloating, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. This is primarily due to the undigested sugar drawing excess water into the GI tract. Aside from the discomfort suffered, dehydration can be a serious complication with diarrhea or vomiting, especially if your cat isn’t drinking enough water because of a stomach ache.
Skip the Milk
Even if your cat can tolerate a little milk, from a nutritional standpoint, there’s no reason she should have it. It offers her nothing she doesn’t get from a properly balanced diet, and it can even interfere with her eating enough of the right stuff. Milk is also high in calories and can easily tip a cat over into too many calories, putting her at risk of becoming overweight. Also, milk, like other human foods, can cause a cat to become increasingly picky about what she’ll eat.
Cheese and yogurt contain far less lactose than straight milk. These can work as occasional treats for your cat, but they should be offered rarely and in small quantities. These too can spoil your cat and make her a more finicky eater, and they also add a significant number of calories. Choose reduced-fat varieties for lower calorie counts.
Lactose Intolerance Is Not an Allergy
Because the two are often confused, it’s worth pointing out that lactose intolerance is not the same thing as a milk allergy, which cats can also suffer from. Food allergies aren’t seen as often in felines as in humans, but they do occur.
While lactose intolerance is a digestive issue, an allergy is an immune system response to one of milk’s two proteins. It can cause similar digestive symptoms, plus itching, runny eyes or nose, sneezing, coughing, difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, and other symptoms. The severity of lactose intolerance symptoms depends on how much is eaten, but a severe allergic reaction can occur in response to even the tiniest trace amount of the allergen, and it can be fatal.
A cat with a milk allergy cannot drink any milk or eat any dairy product. The upshot is that once a kitten is weaned from her mother or no longer needs the kitty formula, it may be best to eliminate milk from her diet altogether.
Updated on 3/16/2016
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