With ACME bombs, talking animals, unsurvivable falls, and menacing criminals, children’s cartoons target the imagination. Yet, the one detail that appears accurate isn’t so: cats innocently lapping a saucerful of milk. Cow’s milk might not be the best creamy treat for Fluffy — so what kind of milk can cats drink?
Cats can drink lactose-free milk in moderation (1-2 tablespoons at most). Some pet brands sell lactose-reduced milk (98%) formulated for cats with dairy cravings. Regular cow’s milk is high in lactose, and a cat’s digestive system lacks the enzymes to digest it, triggering GI upset (diarrhea).
Pull a milk jug from the refrigerator, and suddenly that sleepy kitty is wide awake and raring for dessert. To learn about what kind of milk cats can drink, read on!
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The Strained Relationship of Cats and Lactose
Did you know that around 65% of humans develop lactose intolerance by adulthood? An 8-ounce (237-ml) glass of milk may have you doubling over in pain, rushing to the bathroom, or vomiting profusely, but cow, sheep, and goat milk don’t only trigger digestive horrors for us bipeds. Lactose intolerance haunts our feline friends, too!
What Is Lactose?
Lactose is the primary sugar in animal milk that delivers that delightfully sweet tang.
During kittenhood, a digestive enzyme called lactase (with an “a”) breaks down this sugar for smooth digestion. This lactase allows nursing kittens to drink mom’s nutrient-rich milk without suffering from diarrhea or bloating.
However, just like humans, a kitten’s lactase production stalls with age.
Instead of that once-flawless digestion, the milk — and lactose — passes through the GI tract rapidly. Along the way, it absorbs water and ferments in the colon. This rushed digestion, and still-undigested bacteria, produces uncomfortable lactose intolerance symptoms in cats, like:
- Stomach cramping
- Dehydration or increased thirst (due to water loss stemming from diarrhea)
Not all cats suffer these same side effects as severely (or at all).
So, try spoon-feeding your kitty a tablespoon of skim or 1% milk to test for lactose intolerance. If the litter box doesn’t reek, your cat may very well tolerate cow’s milk in moderation. However, keep in mind that milk is a “treat” and not a complete food replacement — don’t go overboard!
Other Reasons Why Milk Is a Subpar Treat
Scooping a diarrhea-laden litter box might be all it takes to shelve those dairy treats for good. Even if your kitty’s gastrointestinal tract doesn’t react negatively, milk from other animals should be an “only sometimes” treat.
- Even skimmed or 1% milk is fatty, throwing a cat’s nutrient breakdown off balance and amplifying the obesity risk (fat should make up no more than 24% of a cat’s diet).
- Milk boasts almost no nutritional benefits for felines (empty calories).
- It doesn’t provide the same hydrating effects as water.
Don’t let those adorable children’s movies convince you otherwise. Cats should not drink regular cow’s milk from an overflowing bowl, as they would with water.
Why is cow’s milk a digestive nightmare for our feline friends? The video below explains the complicated relationship between cats and lactose while shattering some long-held myths:
The Best Types of Milk for Cats
The dehydration and diarrhea risks may be far too significant to experiment with regular milk. While cow, sheep, and goat milk might be off the table, lactose-free or lactose-reduced alternatives do exist.
Here are the best kinds of milk that cats can safely drink:
Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR)
For the first six weeks of a kitten’s life, mom’s milk meets all of its nutritional needs (i.e., a bolstered immune system, a healthy brain, and strong bones). Kittens who fully wean before 8-10 weeks — either from abandonment or difficulty nursing — still require those nutrients.
Kitten milk replacer (KMR), like Hartz Powdered Kitten Milk Replacer Formula, is artificial cat milk mimicking those same benefits. Since newborn kittens still have much lactase in their GI tracts, the digestive system can fully absorb a KMR’s nutrients like:
- Calcium for healthy bone growth
- Taurine for proper heart and eye development
- Linoleic acid for a beautiful coat
- Lysine for immune system nourishment
Only kittens that are six weeks and younger should drink KMR before transitioning to canned kitten food. Adult cats should not drink KMR unless recommended by a veterinarian.
Lactose-Free Milk Substitutes for Humans
Humans suffering from lactose intolerance aren’t required to slash dairy from their diets altogether. Instead, we turn to milk alternatives like almond milk, rice milk, and soy milk to achieve a similar delectable sweetness.
In moderation, felines can also appreciate these dairy treats:
- Almond milk: Almond milk might not boast the same fatty allure as cow’s milk or delight the taste buds quite as much, but the entirely lactose-free recipe could be far gentler on the sensitive feline GI tract.
- Rice milk: Rice milk isn’t necessarily a healthy additive in a cat’s usually strict diet, as rice causes an unnecessary blood sugar spike that can prove dangerous. However, this milky treat can do in a pinch.
- Soy milk: Soy milk can be another digestive system buster for ultra-sensitive digestive systems. Since the beverage is entirely plant-based, it won’t be a poisonous treat if you poured your cat a tablespoon or two.
While the above milk alternatives might satisfy your taste buds, cats are a bit more particular about what they eat/drink. The feline obsession with cow’s milk is the animal fat smell that quenches a kitty’s sensitive olfactory receptors. Since cats are true carnivores, a glass of almond milk might have no distinguishable aroma.
Many veterinary professionals argue that any human-grade milk alternative poses similar GI risks and bears no nutritional benefit. Cats can drink these kinds of milk but shouldn’t do so often.
Lactose-Free Milk Substitutes for Cats
Sharing a sip of milk with your cat is typically harmless, even for cats with borderline lactose intolerance. Yet, there are healthier alternatives explicitly designed for cats.
Feline milk substitutes come from Grade A milk processed under strict government standards — so you know it’s a sweet yet safe option. Most of these feline-safe alternatives are:
- Low in fat (1% or less): Although it’s often milk’s fatty aroma that draws kitty to your cup, these low-fat recipes reduce the obesity risk caused by fat overload.
- Lactose-free: With 98-99% less lactose than regular cow’s milk, cats can lap up this sweet dessert without rushing to the litter box or feeling fatigued.
- Nutritious: Regular milk is far from nutritious for felines, but these cat-safe concoctions also boast extra nutrients like taurine, calcium, and crude protein for added nourishment.
No matter how much your four-legged pal begs for these milk substitutes, they shouldn’t replace water or her usual nutrient-dense dry food entirely. A tablespoon a day is the perfect tasty treat that your hungry kitty will love.
Just because a cat wants your cereal remnants, that doesn’t mean milk is entirely harmless to kitties. Cats will snack on anything with a meaty or fatty smell, including household dangers like:
- Tuna (in excess)
- Fat trimmings
- Raw meats (risk of foodborne illness, like E. coli)
Even a tablespoon of milk can upset a cat’s sensitive digestive system and wreak havoc on the litter box stench. If your cat’s dairy craving appears insatiable, an occasional tablespoon of Cat Sip or Whiskas Cat Milk can appease a begging kitty without the GI consequences.
- PetMD: E. Coli Infection in Cats
- MedlinePlus: Lactose intolerance
- Fetch by WebMD: Cats and Dairy: Get the Facts
- Cat Care Center: Optimum Feline Nutrition – What Should You Feed Your Cat? and Feline Weight Loss and Prevention Plan
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration: FDA Grade “A” Milk Safety Program
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.