Is it true that cat’s are lactose intolerant and you should never give them milk?
I’ve been noticing this statement about cats appearing in more and more places on the web: Cats are lactose intolerant! They cannot handle the lactose in milk and so if you give them milk it will hurt their stomach and give them diarrhea. Is this true? The truth is that while some cats are lactose intolerant, not all cats seem to be. In this way, they are similar to humans. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should let your cat have lots of milk.
Lactose is the sugar, or disaccharide, in milk. To digest this disaccharide, a special enzyme is needed. If levels of this enzyme decline through life, this sugar will not be easily digested by the gut and instead will undergo fermentation by the gut bacteria. This fermentation causes bloating and the other symptoms associated with lactose intolerance, including gas. The associated diarrhea is caused by water being drawn into the gut and is termed osmotic diarrhea.
It is important to understand that lactose intolerance is not an allergy to milk. It can cause discomfort and digestive upset, but a real allergy to milk can be life-threatening.
Anytime the subject of giving milk to cats comes up, you’ll find some people saying that their cat gets diarrhea after drinking milk, and perhaps even vomiting and gas and obvious discomfort. Others will report that they give their cat an occasional milk treat with no problem. With someone in the crowd saying that all cats are lactose intolerant, this can be confusing, but, as it turns out, not all cats are. Your cat may well be able to handle some milk. So, regarding the definition I gave briefly above, it appears that in some cats, the level of lactase enzyme declines sometime after kittenhood, resulting in an inability to digest lactose, while in other cats the levels do not decline. Or, perhaps, the levels do not decline as much.
How Often Are Cats Lactose Intolerant?
I was unable to find a satisfactory statistic to answer this question and claims regarding this problem in cats range from some cats are lactose intolerant to most cats are lactose intolerant. Some even claim that most cats can have milk with no problem.
If your cat doesn’t seem to have a problem after ingesting a small amount of milk, then it may be likely that he or she can handle the lactose in milk. However, just as with humans, the degree of intolerance your cat may have to milk will depend on just how much lactase enzyme his or her body produces. Just because your cat can handle a very small amount of milk doesn’t mean he can handle more. A few licks may be fine, but half a cup could cause diarrhea.
So, while some cats may completely lose their ability to digest lactose, others may only partially lose this ability, meaning that a large enough amount will trigger symptoms, while a small amount may be fine.
It is also possible, however, for a cat to have similar symptoms after rapid changes in diet. A cat may simply react to consuming a large amount of milk because it is a big change in diet. Any changes in your cat’s food should be introduced gradually.
Does Cream Contain Lactose?
The classic cat treat cliche is not a saucer of milk, but a saucer of cream. Cream contains about the same amount of lactose as whole milk, so, if your cat can’t handle milk, don’t give him or her cream. As well, keep in mind the very high fat content of cream, which itself may cause some gastrointestinal upset.
Milk Protein Allergy in Cats
Cats, and dogs as well, can have food-protein allergies. These allergies can be very dangerous and even life-threatening. The typical food allergies in cats are to beef, fish, and milk proteins. The problem with food allergies is if your cat eats a large variety of people food, it can be very difficult to know what food is causing the problem. Although such allergies can cause gastrointestinal problems, the main symptom are skin problems, particularly pruritus (severe itching).
Can I or Can I Not Give My Cat Milk?
At this point, you may be wondering whether you should be very cautious and avoid giving your cat altogether or risk giving her a small amount as a treat. As always, it is best to ask your veterinarian for advice about any food you may want to give to your cat. However, in general, an occasional treat of a small amount of milk should be fine, as long as your cat shows no discomfort or diarrhea. You will have to, of course, pay attention to what happens in the litter box after trying milk. But, do not give your cat a large amount of milk, as this will be more likely to be a problem should your cat have some degree of intolerance.
By the same token, I do not think it would be a good idea to make milk a regular part of your cat’s diet or even large amounts of milk an occasional part. As above, sudden changes in diet can make your cat sick. So, occasional supplying your cat with any unusual food in large amounts is a problem. Make a well-balanced cat food your cat’s main diet, and anything else should be given occasionally in very small amounts. But, if you do want to give your cat a little bit of milk, she will probably not explode.
Lactose-Free Cat Drinks for Cats
There are milk drinks available for cats that contain reduced-lactose milk with other ingredients, such as Whiskas Catmilk and Cat-Sip, with added lactase (enzyme) These are silly marketing gimmicks designed to appeal to pet owners who want to give their cats a treat of milk. Of the two products mentioned, Cat-Sip is the simplest, containing only a 99% lactose-free milk (be wary of a lactose fermentation product in the milk) and added taurine. If a product contains added protein or ‘crude protein’ be cautious as there is no way to know where they purchase this protein and there could be dangers involved.
You can easily purchase regular lactose-free milk (not reduced lactose but no lactose) marketed to humans, such as Lactaid milk, and let your cat have some of this milk as a treat.
Milk Replacements for Kittens
Do not confuse these milk treats for your grown cat with so-called milk replacements for kittens such as Nutri-Vet Milk Replacement For Kittens. These products are basically meant to be kitten formula. There is limited evidence for their effectiveness and safety but in general, these products have been associated with excess weight gain and diarrhea. As well, some products have been found to contain way too much Vitamin D3. If you have a kitten who has been weaned from its mother too early or is not getting enough mother’s milk (perhaps because the mother is overwhelmed or underproducing), consult your veterinarian before giving the kitten any of these products.
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