In the collective imagination, the image of the cat is very often associated with that of a bowl of milk lapped with delight.

But giving milk to your cat, is it really a good idea or does this practice endanger the health of your fur companion?

Is it ok to give cow milk to my cat?

Cow’s milk is not suitable for adult cats, and even for a kitten, it is not rich enough in lipids (Fats) or proteins and does not contain enough minerals to meet his needs.

Here is a comparison between the composition of cat milk and cow milk:

SpeciesFat (%)Protein (%)Lactose (%)Ash (%)Total solidsReferences
Cow3.73.54.80.713.3Armstrong, 1959.  Park, 2006a
Cat7.110.14.20.521.9Altman and Dittmer, 1961
Gross composition of milks (Overview of Milk of Non-Bovine Mammals (Second Edition) Young W. Park, George F.W. Haenlein, and W.L. Wendorff )

Cow’s milk is generally an interesting source of protein, but it is not the right source for your cat: Indeed, most adult cats cannot tolerate lactose or are allergic to milk proteins.

After weaning, most cats lose their ability to digest lactose due to a lack of lactase (the enzyme that helps digest lactose).

How to know if my cat is lactose-intolerant

Generally, we speak of food intolerance in cats when they do not properly digest one or more components of their food.

The most common food intolerance in cats is lactose intolerance (the sugar in milk), which is often overlooked by most owners.

In fact, adult cats are no longer able to assimilate lactose because of the disappearance of the enzyme responsible for its degradation in their body called Lactase.

As a result, consuming milk causes them to have acute diarrhea.

Other symptoms of lactose intolerance in cats may be:

  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Stomach-ache and bloating
  • Anorexia (lack of appetite)
  • Asthenia (weakness)

How to know if my cat is allergic to cow milk?

When we talk about allergy to cow milk we talk about allergens in this case they are mainly milk proteins.

The immune system reacts to the second contact of the body with the allergen by a series of complex reactions leading to the release of chemical mediators in the blood stream (e.g. histamine, prostaglandins…) which are responsible for the redness, secretions and edema observed during the allergic reaction.

Nota Bene : Lactose intolerance is not a form of food allergy in cats, the following table resumes the main differences:

Lactose-Intolerance Milk Allergy
– Caused by the lack of an enzyme (lactase)– Caused by an allergen (e.g. protein)
– Digestive symptoms (diarrhea, vomiting, stomach-ache…)– Digestive symptoms (diarrhea, vomiting, stomach-ache…)
– Itchiness
– Edema (Swelling under the skin)
– Dyspnea (difficulty to breath)
– Anaphylaxic shock (extreme cases)
– Symptoms disappear immediately after the elimination of lactose– Some symptoms may remain even after the allergen is eliminated from the body
comparison of lactose intolerance and milk allergy in cats

Why does my cat like cow milk?

The primary reason why most cats crave cow milk is that it contains fats and proteins that make milk both tasty and with a pleasurable texture.

Another possible reason is that cow milk reminds cats of their kitty days before weaning when milk was their only food.

What should my cat drink?

The only vital liquid a cat should ever drink is water.

Water is considered as the most essential foodstuff for mammals as it is a medium for metabolic waste removal and is responsible for a multitude of physiological functions.

(Zanghi, 2017)

It is recommended to give your cat an average of 40 to 60 ml of water per kilogram per day (National Research Council, 2006), or about a quarter of a liter of water daily for a 5 kg animal.

Are there any alternatives to cow milk?

There are many cat milk replacement formulas in the market made out mainly of modified cow milk that contains adequate levels of fats and proteins with lessened amounts of lactose.

You can use those formulas as a replacement to the mother’s milk when she is unable to breastfeed, as a complement to breastfeeding, as a weaning food, or as an enrichment of the food ration.

How to feed an orphaned kitten?

Very young kittens only need their mother’s milk for food because it contains everything they need to grow.

If for some reason a kitten is orphaned, you can give him a specific formula, but you should avoid cow’s milk in this case, as it does not contain the essential nutrients necessary for his development.

You must feed your kitten with a replacement milk which is an artificial milk specially formulated for kittens, that you need to prepare at a temperature of 37 ° C (98.6° Fahrenheit) just before giving it to the little cat .

This is a time line guide to kitten nutrition :

  • For a kitten aged 1 to 8 days :
    • a bottle is given 7 times per 24 hours at the rate of 3 to 6 ml / meal (20 to 40 ml / kitten / 24 hours, in 7 meals) or 2 to 5 ml milk / 100 g weight / meal.
  • Then, count + 1 to 2 ml / bottle / day, week to week we remove one bottle per 24 hours.
  • Which means 6 meals per day the 2nd week;
  • 5 bottles per 24h the 3rd week;
  • 4 bottles per 24 hours the 4th week and we encourage the kitten to taste a mixture of solid kitten food (box of kitten foam) mixed for half with milk, then we leave some at his disposal by renewing this offer 3 times per day.
  • 3 bottles per 24 hours in the 5th week when the kitten begins to consume solid kitten food (continue with wet kitten food, and mix it with less and less milk, introduce a few kibbles, a few crumbs of meat / fish / tuna just to vary the tastes);
  • 2 bottles per 24 hours in the 6th week if the kitten consumes solid kitten food well, and its weight is constantly increasing (count an increase of 100 grams per week).

Can i give my cat dairy products?

Dairy products made from cow’s milk (cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.) do not have the same constraints as milk itself since they do not contain as much lactose.

So, if lactose is the source of the problem in milk, it is quite possible that dairy products are much better tolerated.
On the other hand, if your cat is allergic to milk proteins, he will not tolerate dairy products either.

But if there is no food allergy, feel free to give your cat some yogurt from time to time.

However, you need to be careful with cheese in the long run, which is particularly fatty and high in calories which can promote significant weight gain.

Featured image :

“Sibilla” by monastereo is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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