Kitten drinking milk from a bottle

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If you own a cat, you understand just how much fun life can be with a furry friend. For your cat to live a long and healthy life, it is important to make sure you provide them with the proper nutrition they need for their life stage. Cats do not have the same diet as people, and if you try to unnecessarily restrict the diet of your cat, they could develop medical issues. On the other hand, you also don't want to give your cat anything that they can’t handle. For example, are cats lactose intolerant?

In general, cats are lactose intolerant. Like many other mammals, cats are not able to properly digest the lactose in milk. However, at the same time, there are a few key points to keep in mind, including the symptoms of lactose intolerance in cats. Knowing the symptoms can help alert you to when your cat is in need of veterinary care.  

What Is Lactose Intolerance?

Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products

First, you might be wondering, what is lactose intolerance? Lactose intolerance is a condition in which gastrointestinal issues such as gas, diarrhea, and bloating occur due to your body being unable to digest the lactose in dairy.1 Lactose is a sugar that is naturally found in milk and milk-related products, and it can only be broken down by a specific enzyme called lactase.2 Cheese, ice cream, and cream all contain lactose. Even though children can digest lactose at a young age, it is not unusual for people to develop lactose intolerance as they get older. This is the same for cats; kittens have the ability to drink their mother’s milk with no issue, but as they grow up and reach adulthood, this ability goes away.

What Are Symptoms Of Lactose Intolerance In Cats?

Symptoms of lactose intolerance in cats

The symptoms of lactose intolerance in cats are not that different from those of lactose intolerance in people. There are several common symptoms that you may notice if your cat has lactose intolerance. They include:

  • Excessive Gas: You might notice excessive gas from your cat due to their upset stomach.
  • Vomiting: You might also notice that your cat begins to vomit after consuming dairy products. This vomiting can continue for several hours, depending on how much dairy your cat has consumed.
  • Constipation: Your cat can also become constipated. This means that the GI tract has trouble removing food and liquids through the intestines.
  • Diarrhea: It is also possible that your cat may develop the opposite of constipation, which is diarrhea. You may notice that their stool is particularly liquidy or runny, which is a sign of lactose intolerance.
  • Dehydration: You might also notice that your cat is dehydrated after ingesting dairy. This is often due to the loss of fluids associated with vomiting and diarrhea. 
  • Increased thirst: Again due to the loss of fluids caused by vomiting and diarrhea, you may notice your cat drinking a lot more water than usual. 
  • Abdominal Pain: If you see that your cat is not moving around very much after consuming dairy, it could be a sign of abdominal pain. Your cat may also develop abdominal pain because of the gas that stretches out the GI tract and abdomen.
  • Bloating: Your cat might also be a bit bloated after consuming lactose. Since they are unable to break down lactose, they might retain fluid or gas after consuming milk or other forms of dairy.

So, are all cats lactose intolerant? That is not necessarily the case, but the vast majority of cats are not able to consume lactose. It is important to think carefully about the products you give to your cat. Some of them may contain dairy, which can lead to many of the symptoms discussed above.

Should Cats Drink Milk?

When it comes to feeding kittens, their mother’s milk or store bought kitten formula is an essential part of their diet. However, adult cats typically lose their ability to digest lactose.3 It is also a common misconception that people need to give cats milk. Many people who watched cartoons growing up see characters giving milk to cats, but it is important to understand that dairy is not a natural part of a cat's diet. Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning that the most important part of their diet is meat.4 There is no real reason for them to drink milk, especially if they are eating a nutritionally complete and balanced diet.

Cat milk does not have as much lactose compared to other types of milk such as goat milk and cow milk. Lactose intolerant cats are not able to safely consume milk from those sources, and the potential problems of drinking milk can significantly outweigh the benefits. Other than the gastrointestinal issues, such as bloating, diarrhea, and gas, that can be caused by milk, if you provide whole or 2 percent cow milk to your cats, you can add an unhealthy amount of fat to their diet. 

Why Do Cats Love Milk If They Can’t Digest It?

So, given that the vast majority of cats are lactose intolerant, why do cats like milk? They like milk for a number of reasons. First, milk does contain some nutrients that are beneficial to cats. For example, milk contains a lot of protein, which is important for a cat's diet. Milk also contains fat, which cats like to eat. Furthermore, milk has a familiar smell and taste. After all, cats are used to drinking milk as kittens, so there is a bit of nostalgia in play.

At the same time, just because animals have a craving for something doesn't necessarily mean they can eat it. Milk can be thought of in terms of junk food for cats. While it can be nice once in a while, eating it often and long term can be detrimental to their health. Just because cats have a craving for milk doesn't mean they should get it. It is important to be careful when giving them any amount of dairy.

How Much Milk Can Cats Drink?

So, how much milk are cats allowed to drink before they start to get sick? Remember that while not all cats are lactose intolerant, most cats are.

If your cat really likes milk, and does not appear to have any adverse health issues, you can give your cat some milk occasionally. This is meant as a treat, but you should not give your cat any more than a teaspoon or two of milk.5 If you give your cat too much milk, it can lead to a variety of gastrointestinal issues.

Even if you do not think your cat is lactose intolerant, too much milk can lead to obesity because it contains a lot of fat. Furthermore, if you give your cat a lot of milk, it may start to displace other nutrients that are more important. Remember that manufactured cat food has been specifically designed to give your cat the nutrition they require. If you give your cat a lot of milk, your cat will not be hungry for their regular food, leading to nutritional problems.

How To Give Your Cat A Little Dairy As A Treat

Safer ways to give cats dairy

If you want to give your cat some dairy as a treat, there are a few tips to keep in mind. Remember that there are virtually no benefits to giving your cats dairy, and milk is not required once they are no longer kittens.

Hard cheeses can be a good choice if you want to give your cat some dairy to enjoy occasionally. Mozzarella, cheddar, and gouda are recommended because they do not contain as much lactose, so they are less likely to get your cat sick. You may also choose to give your cat goat cheese, as goat milk contains less lactose compared to cow milk. Keep in mind that you need to check the salt content of the cheese before you give it to your cat. Some cheeses contain a lot of salt, which can lead to salt toxicity.

Lactose-free milk is preferable to regular milk, and there are many options on the market that are formulated especially for cats. Not only are they without lactose, these products also typically contain taurine, an essentially amino acid for cats. Despite its relative suitability for cats, it is still important to remember to give your cat lactose-free milk in moderation.

Keep in mind that no matter how much dairy you give your cat, it can lead to risks. Monitor their behavior after you provide it to them to ensure there are no complications. 

Are Cats Lactose Intolerant: FAQs

Can cats eat yogurt?

While cats can eat yogurt in moderation, it is important to be careful. Non-fat plain yogurt is the best option. Lactose-free yogurt can also be an acceptable choice. A teaspoon or two is fine, but give yogurt to your cat in moderation. Most cats are lactose intolerant, so your cat would not be able to eat that type of yogurt regularly.

Can cats drink almond milk?

Yes, cats are able to drink almond milk. Almond milk is not an animal product, so it does not contain any lactose. However, it is still not nutritionally suited for cats and provides them few benefits. While it contains a lot of vitamin E, it should still be given to cats as an occasional treat.

Can cats drink oat milk?

Oat milk is not a dairy product; it is free from lactose. Therefore, your cat should be able to drink oat milk, but you do not want this product to displace their regular food. Only provide oat milk in moderation. Also, keep in mind that any new substance introduced in your cat’s diet has the potential to upset their stomach. 

Final Notes

In general, cats are lactose intolerant. Even though not all cats are lactose intolerant, the vast majority of them are. Kittens need to consume cat milk when they are young, but it does not contain as much lactose. As they are weaned, kittens also lose their ability to digest the lactose in dairy. With a nutritionally balanced diet from wet food, kibble, and other supplements and treats, there is not much reason to feed your cat dairy of any kind. Even if you believe your cat is not lactose intolerant and they are not showing any adverse effects, you should still only provide your cat with milk in moderation. 

If you are looking to improve your cat’s diet and nutrition but don’t know where to start, we are here to help at Dutch. Get advice from our licensed vets from the comfort of your own home, and keep your feline friend healthy through their daily food intake. Safely work dairy into your cat’s treat menu with the help of our vets, and stay on track with our ongoing care and follow-ups.

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References

  1. "Definition & Facts for Lactose Intolerance." National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance/definition-facts.

  2. "Lactose Intolerance." Johns Hopkins Medicine, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/lactose-intolerance

  3. "Vet Q&A: Can cats drink milk?." The People's Dispensary for Sick Animals, 17 Nov. 2020, https://www.pdsa.org.uk/what-we-do/blog/vet-qa-can-cats-drink-milk

  4. "Cats are carnivores, so they should eat like one." Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, 22 Mar. 2018, https://vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/cats-are-carnivores-so-they-should-eat-like-one/.

  5. "Answers: Is It Okay for My Cat to Have Milk?." Feline Nutrition Foundation, https://feline-nutrition.org/answers/answers-is-it-okay-for-my-cat-to-have-milk.

  6. "What Is Lactose Intolerance?." WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/digestive-diseases-lactose-intolerance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who is Dutch?

Dutch is an online veterinary pet telehealth service, created by pet parents and board-certified veterinary specialists. We use a science-backed approach to provide pets relief for their everyday physical and behavioral health issues. Dutch connects you with licensed veterinarians over video chat and messaging to help you get care for your dog or cat quickly wherever you are — without the stress or expense of a vet visit. We also partner with pharmacies who can deliver prescription medication (in applicable states only) and over-the-counter treatments directly to your door. Dutch isn’t a veterinary practice or pharmacy, but a company that helps facilitate these services for pet parents to make veterinary care more accessible to all.

What is a visit with Dutch like?

When booking a video call with a vet, you'll be asked a few questions about your pet’s health issue. Depending on the issue, you may also be asked to fill out a longer questionnaire about their symptoms and share photographs of them so our veterinarians can better understand what’s going on. You’ll then pick an appointment time that works best for you.

During your video call, one of our licensed veterinarians will talk to you about the symptoms your pet is experiencing, ask you questions, review your pet’s medical history if you’ve provided it, and answer any questions you have. The vet will ask to see your pet and their environment. And they may ask you to perform some simple checks on them if needed.

After your video call, the vet will send you a message with a custom treatment plan to help your pet feel better, including a link to buy any recommended prescription or over-the-counter medications. Place your order and we’ll ship it free.

How much will it cost for Dutch to treat my pet?

The Dutch membership starts at $15/mo for unlimited access to the vet. No more long waits for appointments or surprise bills.

In addition to the base membership plan, our veterinarians may also recommend additional medication (Rx and/or OTC) that you will have the option of adding to your plan at an additional cost.