From the Disney movie “Aristocats” to the late 19th century French painter, Alfred-Arthur Brunel de Neuville, famously known for his many feline portraits, the idea of a cat lapping up a saucerful of milk is a common theme throughout the world.
With cats and milk seemingly going together like peanut butter and jelly, it’s understandable that many people think cow milk is a good for cats. However, is milk from cows actually healthy for cats to drink?
And, what about kittens? Is cows’ milk a safe replacement for their mother’s milk?
In this article we’ll cover:
Like the young of all other species of mammals, kittens drink milk that comes from their mother’s bodies until they are weaned. In each species, the mother’s milk is perfectly balanced to meet the unique nutritional needs for babies of that species.
Because each mammal species has distinct developmental requirements, there is a wide variation in the nutritional composition of milks among species of mammal. This means that milk from one species may not be well-suited to meet the nutritional needs for a baby of a different species.
For example, cat milk averages about 10.9 % fat content. By contrast, cow milk has only half the fat content of cat milk.
Another important nutrient in milk is lactose, or milk sugar. It, too, varies widely among species with cat milk coming in at 3.4% lactose, while cow milk contains significantly more at 5.0%.
Mammals break down lactose through the action of the enzyme, lactase. As mammals mature into adults, most lose the ability to digest milk sugar efficiently as lactase production decreases with age.
All this boils down to two important points:
Hopefully, you are already starting to get the picture that cow milk is probably not going to be great for cats. But, this doesn’t mean that cats don’t like cow milk.
Quite the contrary, the following video shows that even well-mannered cats are prone to having a disagreement over who gets the bowl of milk.
Cow milk is not well-balanced for cat’s nutritional needs, primarily because of its high levels of milk sugar. As we saw, cats’ milk is relative low in lactose compared to most mammal species while cow milk is on the high side.
As most adult cats no longer produce sufficient amounts of lactase, the milk sugar is not broken down properly, leading to indigestion. If the cat drinks too much milk, they can get a tummy ache or even develop diarrhea or vomit.
Sadly, if you spend any time volunteering at a rescue center, you’ll soon encounter orphaned kittens. One of the biggest challenges to a motherless kitten’s survival is finding a suitable replacement for their mama’s milk.
Since cow milk is so readily available, it is tempting to just grab the jug out of the fridge and heat some up for the little orphan. In fact, many orphaned farm cats were raised on milk from old Bessie.
However, while many kittens do grow up to prowl around the barn, drinking cow milk can have significant health consequences for a kitten.
While kittens produce more lactase than adult cats, they are not equipped to deal with the high lactose levels found in cow milk. Further, if they do end up experiencing digestive problems, they are likely to be more severe, and episodes of diarrhea could even progress to life-threatening dehydration.
What is ideal is using a milk replacement that is balanced for a kitten’s needs.
Although your cat probably won’t suffer too much from the occasional sip of cow milk, there are other options you can provide for your cat that they will enjoy just as much but without the risk of digestive upset.
In fact, there’s milk made specifically for cats that they can drink which has very little lactose and lots of other essential nutrients so they can benefit from it while they enjoy the taste of real milk. One example of that is Whiska’s Cat Milk. Even so, this should only be given as an occational treat in addition to a healthy diet of high-quality cat food like Wellness.
If you do end up having to take care of an orphaned kitten and want to give it the best possible chance to thrive, first take it to your vet, who can make sure there are no other health problems and give you all the right advice and directions you need.
Next, you need to find a cat milk replacement. Perhaps the best is dog milk, which is very similar in nutrient composition.
If you know of a dog that just had a litter, they will often readily accept a kitten as their new foster baby. If you don’t believe me, just watch this video:
Interestingly, KMR is actually made from cow milk. However, it is specially-formulated and balanced to be just right for a kitten’s nutritional requirements.
Goat milk has also been commonly used for orphaned kittens. Kittens tend to tolerate goat milk better because it’s lower in lactose and the milk protein, casein, than cow milk.
Cats can and will drink cow milk if it is offered to them, but, much like ice cream, it’s not actually very healthy for them. If they drink too much milk, most adult cats will experience some level of indigestion which could develop into full-blown diarrhea.
Kittens are even more likely than adults to suffer the ill effects from consuming cow milk like diarrhea and indigestion. What is uncomfortable for an adult cat can become dehydration and an urgent medical situation in a small kitten. A safe cat milk replacement formula is the ideal answer for an orphaned cat.
While your cat or kitten is probably not going to suffer a medical emergency from drinking small amounts of cow milk, there are many healthy alternatives that your cat or kitten will find just as tasty.
Have you had experience with cats that liked to drink cow milk? If so, how did they tolerate it? Have you ever fostered orphaned kittens, and had to give them a milk replacement formula? Please tell us in the comments below; we’d love to hear from you.
Phil’s lifelong love of animals began as a young boy growing up with three pet dogs. As a teenager and young adult, Phil spent six years working as a veterinary technician, later earning a B.S. in Animal Science. After college, Phil continued working as a vet tech part-time while caring for a private collection of mountain lions used in wildlife educational programs. During this time, Phil volunteered at the Dallas Zoo and was eventually offered a position as a zookeeper in the zoo’s naturalistic Wilds of Africa area. Phil became the primary keeper for a black leopard named “Grady” and a caracal named “Tut” in the predator/prey exhibit.