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Cats and Dairy: Get the Facts

WebMD discusses the facts about cats and dairy, and why substituting a saucer of milk for water may not be best for your kitten.
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WebMD Pet Health Feature

Cats and milk: In children’s stories, it always seems to be a match made in heaven. Who hasn’t seen adorable illustrations of a kitten lapping at a saucer full of cream?

As with so many romances, the one between cats and dairy isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be. That’s because even though most cats adore a bit of milk, milk doesn’t always return the affection.

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You’ll be surprised to learn how many common foods are dangerous (or even deadly) to your cat.

The main culprit is milk’s lactose, which many cats have trouble digesting. The result: diarrhea or stomach upset. Not exactly romantic.

Do cats and dairy ever get along? Can cats drink milk? Here is what cat nutritionists and veterinarians told WebMD.

Cats and Dairy Fact 1: Lactose Intolerance Is the Norm

Just like people, cats can be lactose intolerant. And although we tend to think that’s a problem, it’s actually completely normal, says Linda P. Case, MS, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and author of The Cat: Its Behavior, Nutrition, and Health.

“The only time animals are exposed to lactose is when they’re babies -- in their mother’s milk," Case says.

To digest lactose, a milk sugar, the human and feline digestive systems must contain the enzyme lactase. We have plenty of this enzyme in our systems at birth, and it helps us thrive on our mother’s milk.

But as we grow up, it’s normal for people and cats to begin producing less lactase. Less lactase means less ability to digest lactose. The result may eventually be lactose intolerance.

When a lactose-intolerant cat drinks milk, the undigested lactose passes through the intestinal tract, drawing water with it, according to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine's web site. Bacteria in the colon also ferment the undigested sugars, producing volatile fatty acids.

All that activity might lead to an upset tummy and induce vomiting. But the most common symptom of lactose intolerance in cats is diarrhea, usually within eight to 12 hours, says Susan G. Wynn, DVM, CVA, CVCH, an animal nutritionist in Atlanta and co-author of the Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine.

Cats and Dairy Fact 2: Many Cats Can Drink Milk

Most of us have probably given our cats a bit of milk and never noticed a problem. That’s because some cats tolerate milk just fine, Wynn tells WebMD.

How can you tell? Try offering your cat a tablespoon or two of milk. If you don’t see symptoms within a day, chances are good your cat will do fine with milk as an occasional treat.

Still, most veterinarians don't recommend it. Cats don’t need milk, and the potential problems outweigh the potential benefits.

Remember that treats of all sorts -- such as tuna, meat, cheese, or other “people foods” -- should make up no more than 5% to 10% of your cat’s diet. The rest of your cat's calories should come from a high-quality, nutritionally complete cat food.

If you’re not sure what that means for your cat, talk to your veterinarian. Also, remember that offering table food to a cat often teaches a cat to be finicky.

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