Kittens and saucers of milk or cream actually don’t go together – even though they are often depicted as such in old-fashioned illustrations and children’s books of decades past. Many cats adore milk and cream but, alas, milk doesn’t always love them back.
The problem with milk is lactose, a milk sugar, which cats have difficulty digesting. Linda P. Case, MS, adjunct assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine claims: “The only time cats are exposed to lactose is when they’re babies in their mother’s milk. But lactose isn’t the only problem. Whey proportions are all wrong for cats in cow’s milk too.”
At birth, both humans and felines have the enzyme lactase, which permits them to thrive on their mother’s milk but this enzyme halts the production with the aging process. Less lactase can lead to less ability to digest lactose and that in turn can develop into lactose intolerance.
According to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s web site, when a lactose-intolerant cat drinks milk, the result isn’t pretty. The undigested lactose sugar remains in the intestinal tract where bacteria causes it to ferment and form volatile fatty acids, resulting in stomach upset and most often, diarrhea.
Although it may not seem so at first glance, most experts agree that lactose intolerance among cats is the norm and not the exception. Most veterinarians are against milk as part of an adult cat’s daily regimen because it’s not needed nutritionally and the potential problems associated with milk consumption far outweigh the benefits. Not all cats are lactose intolerant, and if your cat isn’t, an occasional bit of milk given as a treat is fine.
It sometimes happens that a cat unable to tolerate milk can consume other forms of dairy. This is because there are varying degrees of lactose in dairy products. Cream, for example, contains less lactose than milk, as does cottage cheese, some hard cheeses, and yogurt. In the case where dairy is cultured like yogurt, microorganisms have already digested part of the lactose.
Milk can be given to cats without lactose problems as an occasional treat but it’s not necessary to the animal’s diet. Special lactose-free “cat milk” is available as an alternative in the pet food aisle of most supermarkets. No matter how tolerant your cat may be to milk, it can never be a substitute for clear fresh water, which is always needed to aid in digestion, waste elimination and the regulation of body temperature.
To put it another way, milk should be a passing acquaintance for adult cats – not a close friend.