Images of cats lapping milk from a saucer run deep in popular culture, from cartoons to the big screen. These may paint an adorable picture, but is milk healthy for your kitty? The short answer is that while cats can drink small amounts of milk, their digestive systems are not equipped with the right enzymes to handle it. The longer, more complete answer is brought to us courtesy of the folks at Web MD.
Most Cats Are Lactose Intolerant
Cats are lactose intolerant. Therefore, they are unable to properly digest dairy once they become adults. Like humans, cats are only equipped to digest dairy when they are very young. Even then, they are only meant to drink the milk produced by their own species. The digestive systems of baby humans and young kittens produce an enzyme called lactase. Lactase breaks down the lactose found in dairy. As we and our feline counterparts grow older, our ability to create lactase decreases. In turn, so does our ability to properly digest lactose. It’s a simple matter of growing older and become less efficient at breaking down the components of the food source that was really only meant to nourish us through infancy.
Some Cats Tolerate Lactose
Although most cats become lactose intolerant as they grow into adulthood, some remain able to digest dairy. One can test a cat’s lactose tolerance by feeding one or two tablespoons of milk to the cat. Then keep a close eye on it for the next 24 hours. If there are no adverse symptoms, then it is safe to assume that your cat is not lactose intolerant. However, this only means that you can should your cat a little bit of milk every once in a while. High levels of lactose is still not recommended. Also, it is important to note that milk does not offer your adult cat any real nutritional benefits. Likewise, any treat or special food item that isn’t your cat’s ordinary and nutritionally balanced cat food should only make up about 5-10% of your cat’s diet.
Even for cats who may otherwise seem all right with a little bit of dairy, it is important to note that cow’s milk is not at all the ideal source of dairy for your feline companion. It isn’t even healthy for a kitten who still has ample lactase in its system is not equipped to handle the great deal of lactose in bovine milk.
If your kitten requires mother’s milk due to its young age, or you simply want to treat your adult cat to something special every now and then, there are cat milk substitutes that are designed to reformulate the composition of bovine milk in order to make it more digestible for your kitten or cat. These substitutes have more appropriate proportions of casein to whey, and contain drastically less lactose. Even so, these should be reserved for nurturing an orphaned kitten or as an occasional treat for an adult cat.
Dairy should never be used to hydrate a cat. No matter how well-adjusted your cat’s digestive system may be to dairy, you must first make sure that it is drinking the necessary amount of water. Water is essential to your cat’s health and facilitates regulation of body temperature, food digestion, waste elimination, tissue lubrication, and the passage of salt and electrolytes through the body. Making sure your cat is drinking enough water is of the utmost importance, so placing a number of water bowls around the house is recommended to encourage sufficient hydration.