Should Cats Drink Milk?

Should Cats Drink Milk? Is Milk Good for Cats?

It is still widely believed that cats need cow’s milk, but the truth is they don’t need it at all. In fact, it can cause them to be unwell.   Adult cats need fresh, clean water to drink and that, alongside an appropriately balanced cat food, is all they need.  Cats often like milk but, like us, just because they like it doesn’t mean it is good for them!  Some cats will drink milk regularly and seem to be fine, but there could be negative consequences that are not immediately obvious.

Why can’t cats drink cow’s milk?

Cow’s milk contains lactose, a naturally occurring sugar. Lactose requires a specific enzyme, lactase, to be digested. Many cats do not have the enzyme lactase, so they cannot digest lactose. Essentially, most cats are ‘lactose intolerant’.  Drinking cow’s milk can cause cats to suffer from stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. The symptoms are similar to those in humans with lactose intolerance.

Cow’s milk is full of calories with no real nutritional benefit for cats.  For most cats, having an appropriate portion of a ‘complete’* cat food, alongside water to drink, will give them the correct balance of nutrients without excessive calories. There are no adult cats that ‘need’ cow’s milk.

*’Complete’ means it provides all the nutrients your cat needs, look out for this on packaging when buying your cat food. Most commercially produced cat foods are ‘complete’.

Do kittens need milk?

Yes, kittens need milk – but NEVER cow’s milk. Feeding a kitten cow’s milk is unnecessary and can make them unwell.  

Kittens should have milk from their mother for their first few weeks of life. If this is not possible then hand-rearing with an appropriate formula milk, designed specifically for kitten rearing, is important. After a few weeks, kittens are ready to start weaning on to water and solid food (kitten-specific tins, pouches, or biscuits).  When you collect a new kitten from its breeding home, he or she should be eating only solid food and drinking water – no milk.

We often meet owners with new kittens who believe they should be giving their kitten cow’s milk.  to help them settle into the new home. This is not necessary and can be quite harmful.

Moving home can cause kittens a bit of anxiety - anxiety can cause tummy upsets. Feeding milk is also likely to cause tummy upsets.  The two combined are even more likely to result in tummy problems and maybe, even, a trip to the vets. 

The best thing to do when bringing your new kitten home is to feed them the same kitten food they were receiving with the breeder and offer fresh water to drink. Do not offer cow’s milk to drink. You can change to a new brand of kitten food once your kitten has fully settled in, after a few weeks. If the breeder was giving your kitten cow’s milk, you should not continue this.

My cat seems to like milk – is it OK to give it to him?

It is not surprising many cats like the taste of milk, it is full of fats that taste creamy – yum! There are two problems with this…

  1. The signs of lactose intolerance are not always obvious from the outside – they can include feeling bloated, gassy, and swollen in the tummy, or excessive tummy rumbling. These are things we might not notice in our cats.  So, cats might appear to tolerate cow’s milk quite well, but they could be feeling pretty rubbish on the inside.  

If our cats go outside, we might not notice if they have been sick.We also don’t tend to monitor their bowel movements outside, so we might not notice if they have loose or funny coloured poos.

  1. Cow’s milk contains a lot of fat for a cat. Your cat needs a balanced supply of specific proteins to remain healthy – complete cat foods are formulated to provide everything your cat needs - including all their calories. If you supplement their diet with milk, you are adding calories with no nutritional benefit, which may lead to obesity and the health problems associated with that – joint disease, immobility, diabetes, cancers.

Should cats drink special cat’s milk?

You can buy products called ‘cat milk’ that have a reduced lactose content. These are better and are OK to feed as a treat, but please remember they still tend to be quite high in fat and calories – so should be a treat, not a routine.  Cats are fine just drinking water. If you are worried your cat doesn’t drink enough water, try offering water from a different bowl, in a different location, or from a fountain or tap, rather than being tempted to offer milk. Remember, cats that have wet food will drink less than cats on a biscuit diet, and cats that go outside may drink from puddles or pools, so may not appear to drink much inside.

As always, if you have any questions about your cat’s food, drink, or health you can call us on 01395 277775 (Exmouth) or 01395 442211 (Budleigh).