A cat drinks milk from a bowl.

Cats Drinking Milk: Fact or Fiction?

Is your favorite feline obsessed with dairy products? Many cats flip for milk, cheese, and yogurt. Even ancient stories involve people leaving platters of milk out for felines. It’s no secret that milk is rich in protein, but is it healthy for your cat? When they deliver their young, all female mammals produce milk. Babies of each species require it for nursing and immunity. However, humans are the only creatures that regularly consume the milk from another animal. According to the Naked Scientists, the ability to process lactose shuts down in all mammals, including cats, when they reach a certain age. That’s why cats, and potentially all adult mammals, are lactose intolerant.

Where Did the Stereotype Come From?

Nobody really knows what started the myth that cats should drink milk. Cats were domesticated in large part because they were great mice exterminators. When cats were around, people noticed that rodent infestations diminished. Farmers began leaving food out for felines in hopes that the animals would eat the mice that got into their storage areas. Mice prefer cheese, and cheesemakers appreciated having cats around to keep the rodents at bay. Some people believe that these workers would leave milk and cheese out for the cats.

What Happens When Cats Drink Milk?

The primary sugar in milk is called lactose. When they’re young, cats create enzymes that allow them to digest lactose. After they grow up, they lose those enzymes. It’s not necessarily a problem; lactose intolerance in cats is actually the norm, according to Pet MD.

Lactose intolerance becomes a problem when milk causes digestive distress in adult cats. It moves through the gut without getting processed. As this happens, the undigested particles pull water out of the intestines. The sugars in milk also provide food for intestinal bacteria. As the bacteria “eat” the sugars, fermentation occurs, and gas develops in the cat’s colon. This can cause stomach upset, vomiting, and diarrhea. Watery stools are the most common symptom of lactose intolerance in cats.

What if you’ve fed your cat dairy without detrimental effects? Some cats aren’t as sensitive to lactose as others. If your cat can drink a tablespoon or two of milk without developing symptoms within 24 hours, chances are you can offer it as an occasional treat. Most cats can digest cultured dairy products, like buttermilk, yogurt, and sour cream, better than plain milk. These foods might have less lactose. However, they may be loaded with additives and sugars, which aren’t healthy for cats.

What’s the Best Alternative to Cow’s Milk for Cats?

Many pet stores carry some type of cat milk. Although this sounds like it might have come straight from a mama cat, don’t be fooled. Cat milk is simply a lactose-reduced type of cow’s milk. Milk that’s marketed for cats often has added nutrients, such as taurine, which is an amino acid that’s essential for cats’ health, says Pet MD. Regardless, it still may be best to give your cat a nutrient-rich diet along with fresh, clean water instead of any dairy products.

What about kittens that are unable to nurse? Sometimes, cats are separated from their mothers too early. Other times, the mother cat has nursing problems. Should you give these young felines cow’s milk? Kittens need the vitamins, minerals, and other compounds in their mother’s milk to develop properly. These little ones may need to receive kitten formula as a supplement. Cow’s milk doesn’t have the right proportion of proteins to satisfy a kitten’s developmental needs.

Kittens naturally begin to wean when they’re around four weeks old. Once their eyes can focus well and they can stand and walk without wobbling, kittens can begin to eat solid food. Still, they may need small amounts of targeted nutrients that are only available in feline milk. If you’re hand-feeding a young cat, you can gradually reduce the amount of kitten formula that you give it until it’s about eight to ten weeks old. At that time, you can start offering solid kitten food alone.

Water is the only liquid that an adult cat truly needs. Proper hydration helps your cat regulate its body temperature, digest and eliminate foods, and maintain lubrication in the soft tissues. Dehydrated kitties may refuse to eat or have problems grooming. Their gums may feel sticky, and they’re often lethargic. Dehydration is often a sign that your cat has a health issue.

On the other hand, cats that constantly drink water may also have a health problem. Increased thirst is a symptom of diabetes. Diabetes is a common illness in felines. You’ll probably notice a cat with diabetes using the litter box more frequently than usual. Because milk contains sugar, you should check with your veterinarian before giving it to a diabetic cat.

My Cat Won’t Drink Water

If your cat drinks milk predominantly, she may not want to drink water at first. Some cats prefer the sweet, fatty taste of dairy. Start gradually switching your feline over to water. You can mix warm milk with water, increasing the ratio every day. You can also switch from regular cow’s milk to cat milk before increasing the amount of water that you add to the liquid. Some cats drink more readily from a fountain because the moving water stimulates them. Other cats are picky and won’t drink from a bowl that has hair or debris in it. Putting several bowls of water around the house can help ensure that your cat drinks enough. Keep your toilet lids closed, though. Many picky cats are known for having a taste for toilet water.

The Bottom Line

Although you love to spoil your cat, there are better ways to show your affection than by offering her milk. Although she may not have a visible reaction to dairy, her digestive system isn’t set up to handle it. Even other human foods, like canned tuna, can be harmful when given to cats in large amounts. Stick with treats that are made for felines. If she doesn’t like them, experiment with different brands and flavors. You’ll eventually find one that she’ll fall head over heels for.