It’s no secret cats love milk. It’s a staple of cat cartoons, children’s books, and many a cat-friendly pantry.
It’s also reasonably well-known that milk isn’t healthy for cats. But can cats have lactose-free milk, and is it good for them?
Before we get into that, let’s discuss why you can’t have ordinary milk and why you are considering giving your cat lactose-free milk in the first place.
To the dismay of felines everywhere, the answer is no. Once cats mature, they become lactose intolerant.
That means they lose the ability to digest the lactose enzyme.
However, this does nothing to diminish cats’ fondness for milk. That makes it tempting to feed your cat milk as an occasional treat. You might be wondering if that’s okay.
Unfortunately, the answer is still no. Milk and all dairy products pose several health problems for cats.
Ideally, giving your cat lactose-free milk would combat these issues. Instead, many lactose-free kinds of milk cause the same problems. Here are the primary issues to watch out for when giving your cat lactose-free milk.
One of the most immediately apparent side-effects of giving a cat milk is that they vomit. The inability to process the lactose enzyme upsets their stomach.
The milk triggers gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea and cramping. Your cat compensates for that by vomiting up the source of the upset.
The most immediately apparent problem caused by milk and other dairy is that it causes diarrhea.
That can lead to dehydration. In and of itself, that shouldn’t be a problem. Your cat drinks more water, and the problem resolves.
Except it doesn’t because your cat’s body continues to struggle to digest the lactose enzyme. It compensates for this digestive hiccough by taking in more water. Combined with cats’ instinct to vomit, that causes another health problem.
Dehydration worsens the more milk your cat drinks.
But dehydration quickly becomes a problem when you add milk to the equation because it turns chronic low-level dehydration into severe dehydration. Without proper care, severe dehydration can be fatal.
Cats are severely dehydrated when they are 10-12% dehydrated.
But how do you know your cat is dehydrated? Tell-tale signs include:
- Dry mouth/gums
- Sunken eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Decreased activity/mobility
- Lack of skin elasticity
- Elevated heart rate
Dehydration is especially problematic in kittens because they lose water faster than adults due to their sped-up metabolism.
So, you can’t give adult cats milk because it causes several health problems. And giving cats lactose-free milk isn’t guaranteed to solve those problems.
But everyone knows kittens drink milk. That makes it natural to wonder if you can give milk to kittens.
The answer to this question depends on the age of the kitten. Between birth and ten weeks old, kittens need milk. At that age, they still have the lactose enzyme and can digest milk without issue.
You need to bottle-feed a kitten using a pet nurser if their mother can’t feed them herself. That might happen if the number of kittens exceeds the available nipples or if the mother cat isn’t able to nurse.
But even in this scenario, you are more likely to feed the kitten milk replacer instead of cow milk. It’s available from many pet stores and saves you from agonizing over whether the kitten can still digest dairy.
Kittens begin the weaning process around ten weeks old. To speed the process along, they naturally lose the lactase enzyme.
By twelve weeks, kittens are as lactose intolerant as their mother, and you must switch to only offering them water.
By now, we have established you can’t give cats milk. And there’s a limited window where milk is safe for kittens.
But if the lactose enzyme is the problem, does that mean you can give your cats lactose-free milk?
The answer varies depending on the alternative. Let’s look at some lactose-free milk options many people consider giving their cats.
One of the most popular alternatives to cow milk is goat milk. It contains significantly less lactose than cow milk. But since it still contains lactose, it isn’t sufficiently lactose-free to consider giving it to your cat.
But while soy milk has benefits, especially for lactose-intolerant humans, you cannot give this lactose-free milk to cats.
Although soy milk lacks lactose, it contains soybeans. Cats aren’t allergic to soy, per se, but they aren’t used to digesting it, either.
Consequently, feeding your cat large quantities of soy milk triggers many of the same problems as cow milk. They may experience:
Almond milk is another popular lactose-free milk. But it’s not ideal for cats, either.
Like soy milk, it’s dairy free. So it won’t automatically upset your cat’s stomach. Conceivably, in small doses, you could give a cat almond milk as a treat.
Except it contains almonds, and some cats react adversely to nuts. You won’t know if that’s true of your cat or not until they drink almond milk.
Almond milk is also high in fat, and that can cause many of the same problems ordinary milk does. A cat that drinks too much almond milk may suffer gastrointestinal problems or vomiting.
While these side effects are treatable, they should be avoided. For that reason, vets discourage people from giving their cats almond milk.
Similarly, coconut milk is nut-based. It lacks the problematic dairy content of ordinary milk, but if your cat has a sensitive stomach, coconut milk isn’t worth the hassle.
That’s not the only reason to avoid giving your cat coconut milk.
The other problem with coconut milk is that it contains oils. Oils are an effective feline laxative. That means dairy-free or not, you still run the risk of dehydrating your cat by giving them coconut milk.
Yet another argument against coconut milk is its high levels of potassium. Cats need potassium to stay healthy, but they can have too much. That leads to a condition called hyperkalemia.
The severity of this condition varies. Symptoms can include:
- Muscle weakness/wasting
If you are determined to treat your cat to the occasional saucer of milk, cat milk is the one lactose-free product you can give cats with a clear conscience.
The name is deceptive, as the milk isn’t from cats. Instead, it’s a carefully-curated, lactose-free milk designed with cats in mind.
It has all the flavor of milk and none of the attendant health problems. It will put you out of pocket several dollars, but not nearly as much as an emergency trip to the vet would.
One thing to keep in mind is that cat milk includes corn syrup. It appeals to your cat, but too much of it can be harmful to diabetic cats.
Soy and nut-based kinds of milk aren’t great for your cat. That said, an occasional saucer of lactose-free milk before bed should be safe. But if you want to indulge your cat’s predilection for milk, there are better, lactose-free alternatives. Cat milk or dairy-flavored treats are the safest options for your milk-loving pet.