Whether you are a cat person or not, I’m sure you are well aware of the traditional image of a cat drinking milk. In fact, many people believe that milk is good for cats and that they may even need it. However, this is far from the truth – most cats are actually lactose intolerant.
Lactose intolerance may sound like an issue, however it is very normal. Throughout evolution, mammals such as cats and humans have only been subjected to milk as newborns. Humans are the only mammals that now naturally drink milk as adults, so giving milk to cats is considered unnatural as they are usually incapable of digesting it properly.
Being lactose intolerant means you lack the enzyme lactase, which is the same whether you are a cat or a human. Without lactase, you can’t properly digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, and so it remains in the gut. This can either be converted to gases, like hydrogen or methane, or be excreted without being broken down, neither of which are ideal scenarios. Continuing to consume dairy in large quantities when one is lactose intolerant can lead to further gastrointestinal problems in the long run. Cats, like pretty much all other mammals apart from humans, become lactose intolerant after the breastfeeding period is over. This means that giving your cat milk, or other dairy products, can cause vomiting or diarrhoea on top of a general feeling of sickness.
So if it’s not good for them, why do they want it so badly? A lot of cats are attracted to milk, yoghurt or even ice-cream. If I peel open a yoghurt, my cat is bound to appear at my feet within the next two seconds. So why are they so attracted to dairy?
Much like lactose intolerant people, cats can still like foods that aren’t good for them
There is a simple answer to this. Cats can smell the fat and protein found in dairy products and this is what attracts them. There is not as much fat in milk nowadays as there used to be, especially if you buy skimmed milk, but cats can still detect it. Much like lactose intolerant people, cats can still like foods that aren’t good for them.
If your cat is craving milk, it may suggest that they need more fat or protein in their diet. It will probably not do much harm to give them a treat of dairy once in a while, however giving milk on a regular basis, or even worse as a water alternative, can cause your cat to have health problems in the long run. Instead, you could buy some treats with extra protein in them, or change up the food you give them to ensure they get the essential nutrients.
So to summarise, the idea of cats loving milk is not a myth in itself, however it doesn’t mean that you should be giving it to them. In the wild, cats would not consume any dairy apart from when they are newly born. It is only in the process of domestication that they have been reintroduced to milk in their adult lives.