Updated: August 8, 2022 by Kristen Chapple
Cats and milk. It is a perfect match, well, at least in cartoons and movies. But, is that really so? Can cats drink milk? Most people would think it’s a silly question. It sounds like “Can fish swim?”, “Do dogs like bones?” or “Is the Pope Catholic?”. Cats and milk go together in popular culture, just like mice and cheese, monkeys and bananas, bears and honey, rabbits and carrots. Some of these common pairs are true, while others are just myths. If you believe that milk is great for cats, I have shocking news for you! It’s not even close! Most adult cats are lactose intolerant which means that they shouldn’t drink milk.
However, it’s not that simple. I can’t just say that milk is absolutely bad for cats. Some cats can drink milk (including non-dairy options like almond milk or oat milk) without feeling any discomfort. So, let’s dig deeper to explain cats and milk relationship.
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The Origin of Cats and Milk Myth
While TV can be a bad influence in many ways, it would be unfair to blame only cartoons and movies for the myth of the kitty with a saucer of milk. They exploited the narrative a lot, but they didn’t invent it. Historically, cats often lived alongside farmers. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
Cats kept the rodents away from the farmers’ houses, but they also enjoyed to skim the cream from fresh milk. Of course, they were not allowed to do that, but we know that cats can be sneaky and resourceful. Anyway, cats love cream because of its high fat content. When fresh milk comes straight from the cows, fatty cream rises to the top providing a delicious treat for cats. If they can get their paws (actually tongues) on it, that is.
Furthermore, most cats like the taste of milk. It is the first thing they taste in their lives. So, farmers had every reason to believe that cats love milk and that it is most likely a great food for them.
The Truth About Cats and Milk
Obviously, milk is essential for kittens in the first couple of weeks of their lives. All mammals are alike when it comes to milk. It’s perfect food for babies. All mammals drink milk when they are born and apart from humans, they don’t do it beyond infancy. There’s a simple science behind these feeding habits. Kittens and other mammal infants produce a certain enzyme called lactase. It allows them to digest lactose from milk. As they grow up, they lose the ability to produce this enzyme and consequently digest milk properly.
Actually, it is the same principle for humans. You probably know someone who is lactose intolerant. The difference is that humans have evolved so most of us can tolerate lactose. With cats, it is quite the opposite. Most of them lose the ability to digest milk, while few adult cats retain this ability.
What Happens If a Cat Drinks Milk
Now, you know that milk is not great for cats. But, is it really bad? It’s not dangerous, for starters. Actually, your cat might be in that small group of cats that can drink and digest milk. For these cats, it is okay to drink some milk occasionally. However, milk alone can’t provide all the essential nutrients that cats need. So, milk is not a proper and balanced meal for cats. It can be a nice treat, though.
As for the majority of cats that can’t digest milk, it is best to avoid it. If your cat drinks some, there are two possible consequences. An upset tummy is the most common result of drinking milk. It takes about 6 to 10 hours for discomfort to show. However, it is not a big deal. It will go away by itself, just don’t allow your cat to get more milk. So, milk is not dangerous or anything like it for your cat. Vomiting and diarrhea aren’t fun for cats, though. Neither, it’s fun for cat parents for that matter.
Believe it or not, some cats may be allergic to milk, so you should be sure to know if can cats drink milk before giving them some! It’s not as common as lactose intolerance, but it is possible. Fortunately, unless your cat drinks gallons of milk, it is not a serious threat. Your cat might experience itchy skin, hair loss, vomiting, bloating, and other symptoms of an upset stomach. If any of these symptoms are serious contact your vet. But, in most cases, excluding milk and dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and any kind of ice cream from your cat’s diet is enough to solve the problem.
There are so many persistent myths about animals, cats included. But, let me tell you: ostriches don’t bury their heads in the sand, the red color doesn’t enrage bulls, frogs won’t give you warts, and cats and milk aren’t a match made in heaven. If you want your cat to thrive, stick with cat food formulas designed to meet the feline’s nutritional needs.