Pet Keen is reader-supported. When you buy via links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you. Learn more.

Home > Cats > Can Cats Drink Cow’s Milk? Vet-Reviewed Lactose Intolerance Facts

Can Cats Drink Cow’s Milk? Vet-Reviewed Lactose Intolerance Facts

milking goat

Vet approved

Dr. Lorna Whittemore Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Lorna Whittemore

Veterinarian, MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Learn more »

When it comes to feeding our feline friends, many cat owners often wonder, “Can cats drink cow’s milk?” While the image of a cat lapping up a saucer of milk is quite popular, the truth might surprise you. Cats are generally lactose intolerant, which means they can’t digest cow’s milk properly. This article will delve into the reasons why, provide healthier alternatives, and offer tips for a balanced diet.


Why Cats Can’t Drink Cow’s Milk: Lactose Intolerance in Cats

Digestion in cats is a complex process, much like it is in humans. However, there are some key differences that pet owners should be aware of, especially when it comes to feeding their feline friends certain foods, such as cow’s milk.

Most cats, particularly adult ones, are lactose intolerant. This condition arises because their bodies do not produce enough of an enzyme called lactase. Lactase is crucial in the digestive process of milk  as it breaks down lactose, a type of sugar found in cow’s milk and other dairy products. Without sufficient lactase, lactose cannot be properly digested and absorbed.

The inability to digest lactose can cause several digestive issues, including bloating, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. The severity of these symptoms can vary depending on the amount of lactose a cat has consumed and its level of lactase deficiency.

Milking Cow
Image Credit: Zacchio,Shutterstock

Signs of Lactose Intolerance in Cats

When a lactose-intolerant cat drinks milk, it may experience a variety of uncomfortable side effects. These can include stomach upset, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and vomiting.

These signs usually appear within 30 minutes to 2 hours after the cat has consumed milk. The onset and severity of symptoms can vary from one cat to another. Some cats may show signs of discomfort almost immediately after consuming milk, while others may not show signs until several hours later.

Why Kittens Can Tolerate Milk

While most adult cats are lactose intolerant, kittens are typically able to tolerate milk without any problems. This is because kittens are born with high levels of lactase, allowing them to digest the lactose present in their mother’s milk easily.

However, as kittens grow and start to be weaned off their mother’s milk, their bodies gradually produce less lactase. By the time they reach adulthood, many cats have lost the ability to produce enough lactase to effectively digest lactose, making them lactose intolerant.

This is why it’s generally safe for kittens to drink their mother’s milk, but adult cats should not be given regular cow’s milk. If a kitten is orphaned or the mother cat cannot produce enough milk, a specially formulated kitten milk replacement should be used instead of cow’s milk.

cow's milk
Image Credit: Piqsels


Alternatives to Cow’s Milk for Cats

While cow’s milk is typically not recommended for cats, there are several alternatives available that can provide hydration and nutrition without causing digestive issues. Always consult with your vet before introducing any new food or drink into your cat’s diet to ensure it’s safe and beneficial for your pet.

pouring milk in a glass
Image Credit: NataliaPopova, Shutterstock
  • Cat Milk Products – Many pet food manufacturers offer cat milk products that are specially designed to meet the nutritional needs of cats. These products are typically lactose-free or have a reduced lactose content, making them easier for cats to digest. They often contain taurine, an essential amino acid for cats, and other vital nutrients. It’s important to note, however, that these milk substitutes should not replace a balanced diet but can be given as an occasional treat and are not a milk replacer substitute for rearing kittens.
  • Water – Water is the most natural and best drink for any cat. It’s crucial for hydration and helps ensure proper functioning of the kidneys and other vital organs. Fresh, clean water should always be readily available for your cat. Some cats might enjoy running water from a pet fountain, which can encourage them to drink more.
  • Wet Cat Food – Wet cat food is not only tasty for most cats but also has a high moisture content, which can contribute to keeping your cat well-hydrated. Wet food can make up a portion of your cat’s diet, providing them with both nutrition and hydration in one go.
  • Goat’s Milk – Some cat owners opt for goat’s milk as an alternative to cow’s milk because it’s easier for cats to digest. Goat milk has less lactose than cow milk and is packed with beneficial nutrients. However, it should be given in moderation as too much can still lead to digestive discomfort.

Tips for a Balanced Feline Diet

  • High-quality commercial cat food should make up the majority of your cat’s diet.
  • Ensure the cat food is complete and balanced, meaning it meets all the nutritional requirements of your cat.
  • Look for cat food that lists a source of animal protein, like chicken or beef, as the first ingredient.
  • Don’t give your cat dog food, as it doesn’t meet the specific nutritional needs of cats.
  • Treats should only make up 10% of your cat’s daily caloric intake.
  • Always provide fresh water for your cat.
  • Regularly clean your cat’s food and water dishes to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Do not give your cat alcohol, chocolate, caffeine, or foods seasoned with garlic or onions, as these are toxic.
  • Consult with your vet before making any significant changes to your cat’s diet.
  • Remember that every cat is unique, and what works for one may not work for another.
Farmer pours milk into can
Image Credit: StockMediaSeller,Shutterstock


Other FAQs About Lactose Intolerance and Nutrition for Cats

Q: What should I do if my cat has consumed cow’s milk and is showing signs of distress?

A: If your cat has consumed a large amount of cow’s milk and is vomiting, has diarrhea, or appears in distress, contact your vet for advice.

Q: Is lactose-free milk safe for cats?

A: While lactose-free milk is safer for cats than regular milk, it still shouldn’t replace water as the primary drink.

Q: Can I give my cat cheese or yogurt?

A: Small amounts of cheese or yogurt may not cause problems in some cats, but others may experience digestive upset.

Q: How much water should my cat drink each day?

A: Generally, a cat may drink between 3.5 – 4.5 ounces of water per 5 pounds of body weight daily.

Q: Do cats need wet food?

A: While not necessary if they’re drinking enough water, wet food can help keep cats hydrated and is often more appealing to them.

little gray kitten eating wet food on a white plate
Image Credit: Elizabett, Shutterstock


Wrapping up, it’s important to remember that although cats might appear to relish the taste of cow’s milk, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s beneficial for them. A majority of adult cats are lactose intolerant, meaning that their bodies cannot properly digest lactose, the sugar found in cow’s milk. As a result, consuming it can lead to discomfort and digestive issues such as diarrhea or upset stomach. Better to pass on the milk!

See also:

Featured Image Credit: MemoryCatcher, Pixabay

Our vets

Want to talk to a vet online?

Whether you have concerns about your dog, cat, or other pet, trained vets have the answers!

Our vets