Readers of Dodie Smith’s novel “101 Dalmatians” will remember that of the 15 Dearly Dalmatian puppies, half were nursed by the liver-spotted Perdita. The logic was that 15 were too many for one nursing dog. And Smith’s thorough knowledge of dogs (she raised three) combined with her observational eye, makes for a funny, witty canine adventure.
So, it’s possible to miss-mother puppies with other dogs. Dodie Smith taught us that. But what do you do with orphaned kittens? Crucially, can cats drink dog milk?
The answer to this is unhelpfully circumstantial. But the short answer is, yes, cats can drink dog milk. There is nothing in a mother dog’s milk inherently harmful to cats or kittens.
That seems straightforward, so where do the complications come from?
Earlier, we said whether or not cats could drink dog milk was circumstantial. One of the most crucial circumstances you must consider is how much milk the nursing dog produces.
Returning briefly to Smith’s fictional Dalmatians, the adoption of half the puppies by a different nursing mother works because Perdita gets separated from her puppies. She still has milk but no one to nurse.
In real life, that may not be the case. Typically, you can predict the number of mammalian offspring by halving the number of the mother’s nipples. A female dog has anywhere from six to 10 nipples. So they average between three to five puppies.
But for averages to work, there have to be exceptions. The mother might produce 10 puppies or eight.
In scenarios like that, the question changes. It isn’t about whether cats can drink dog milk but whether the mother dog has enough milk to spare. Since she is going to understandably prioritize her puppies over an unrelated kitten, trying to introduce a feline to an already crowded litter could be actively dangerous to the cat.
The other circumstance you need to consider is whether nursing the kitten could be harmful to the nursing dog.
Dogs are incredibly adaptable, and that’s why the internet is rife with videos of interspecies friendships initiated by canines. They bond happily and promptly with everything from cats to goats and horses given the chance.
That said, there’s still room for miscommunication, and interspecies nursing is a classic example.
Because they are separate species, kittens and puppies express different nursing behavior.
For instance, a nursing cat thinks nothing of a kitten’s “kneading” habit. But this can be painful for a dog that doesn’t expect it.
That’s because kittens have much sharper claws than their puppy counterparts. If you aren’t convinced, offer your finger to a whimsically-inclined kitten and see what happens. Inevitably, that kind of play leads to shredded fingers.
Conversely, the same kind of play with a puppy is mildly ticklish. Puppy paws and claws just aren’t built the same way as a cat’s.
So, while felines can theoretically drink dog milk, it should be a stop-gap. The minute it appears to hurt the nursing dog, you must intervene.
Age of the Cat
There’s a brief window where kittens possess the lactase enzyme. That lasts until they become lactose intolerant at seven weeks old.
So, while it would be convenient to bundle an orphaned kitten of seven weeks into a puppy litter, you shouldn’t do it. Ingesting large quantities of lactose after developing an intolerance causes health problems in cats.
In particular, you may notice:
- Malformed feces
In adult cats, these symptoms can be messy and unpleasant at best. But in young cats, severe dehydration can be fatal. So, although it’s more effort, once the cat becomes too old for milk of any kind, your best bet is to feed them yourself using vet-recommended food and supplements.
Another consideration when judging if cats can drink dog milk concerns nutritional content.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning their diet is primarily meat-based. Not only that, but they can’t digest other nutrients as effectively as meat.
What does that have to do with cats drinking dog milk?
The milk a mother cat produces reflects her diet. That means it is full of nutrients her kittens can process efficiently. And those nutrients reflect her obligate carnivore status.
In comparison, dogs are categorized as facultative carnivores. They prefer meat-based proteins for sustenance but can also digest and thrive on plant-based nutrients in ways cats can’t.
While the majority of food dogs eat does have meat-based proteins, it also contains carbohydrates and plant matter that felines struggle with. Consequently, the milk produced by a nursing dog has different nutritional content to that of a nursing cat.
So while there are advantages to having a dog nurse an orphaned cat, it’s still worth supplementing their diet.
Depending on the size of a dog’s litter, you may find you need to buy a milk replacer to ensure all puppies get an equal share at mealtimes.
Since you have to buy the puppy milk replacer anyway, it’s tempting to save money and offer this to a kitten in your care.
But while determining whether a cat can drink dog milk involves weighing various pros and cons, this route is much more cut and dried.
Cats cannot drink dog milk replacers. They need kitten milk replacers to develop into healthy, fully-developed cats. That comes back to our earlier point about the nutritional composition of cat versus dog milk.
Whereas a nursing dog’s milk is roughly equivalent to that of a nursing cat’s, milk replacers are not interchangeable. These formulas are tailored toward the species they target on the tin.
So, a kitten cannot get the same nutritional advantages from a puppy milk replacer as maturing dogs. Equally, it’s no good trying to give puppies kitten milk replacer if you want them to thrive.
The two species are just different enough that their individual dietary needs don’t always match.
Sometimes a mother cat cannot nurse all or any of her kittens. If you don’t have a dog to play wet nurse, you may resort to formula.
This approach can be effective, and many formulas exist to mimic the nutritional composition of a nursing cat’s milk.
However, not all formulas do so. Some milk replacers should only be used as supplements to a cat’s existing diet.
So, when choosing a milk replacer for your cat, scrutinize the ingredients. Growing cats need roughly 25 calories for every 100 grams of milk, and a supplemental formula rather than a replacer may not give them that.
The other thing you want to look for in the ingredients is cow’s milk. As extremely young kittens have the lactose enzyme, they can ingest this safely. But after weaning, they develop lactose intolerance. So, anything containing cow’s milk becomes immediately unsuitable.
Cats can drink dog milk in a pinch. It allows maturing cats to reap the social benefits of nursing from one of nature’s expert nurturers. But you should only do this if the dog in question has enough available milk. You also need to be sure the kitten is young enough that the nutritional differences between cat and dog milk won’t affect them in the long term.
Crucially, if nursing the cat becomes painful or problematic, you must intervene. And remember, although a dog can safely nurse a kitten, the same isn’t true of milk replacers and formulas. Those are species-specific, and for a healthy, happy kitten, they cannot be used interchangeably.
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