The cat lapping at a bowl of cream is a familiar image in cartoons, children’s books, and popular imagination. But this reader wasn’t sure her cat should be consuming dairy products. Here’s what I told her.
Q: My cat enjoys drinking leftover milk from my cereal bowl, but my mother says I shouldn’t give it to him because cats are lactose intolerant. True?
A: Cats have a reputation for loving milk. Maybe that’s because they have a long history of hanging out in barns with dairy cows and goats. At least that was my experience growing up on an Idaho dairy farm.
Cats will drink milk presumably because they enjoy the taste — especially if it’s full-fat — but it doesn’t necessarily agree with their digestive systems. Like some people, some cats are lactose intolerant and will experience diarrhea if they drink it. Other possible signs of lactose intolerance are vomiting or flatulence.
That’s because cow’s milk contains more lactose (milk sugar) and casein (a milk protein) than the milk kittens receive from their mothers. As kittens mature into cats, their ability to digest milk decreases because their body produces less of an enzyme called lactase that is involved in digestion of lactose. The body doesn’t absorb the milk sugar, causing intestinal upset. Beyond that, cream and whole milk are high in fat, causing cats who lap it up to pack on the pounds.
As with so many things, cats are individuals. Some of them don’t have a problem with milk, yogurt, cottage cheese or other dairy products. For those cats, a small amount of milk or milk products — up to a tablespoon — is fine as a treat.
Some pet milk products contain goat milk — which has a different molecular structure than cow milk and is more digestible by cats — as well as probiotics and digestive enzymes that can benefit cats. And remember, if you’re feeding orphaned kittens, stay away from any type of milk other than kitten milk formula available from your veterinarian or pet supply store.
Read more in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.