Animal IQ

A Feline Myth Debunked: Many Cats Can't Drink Milk

From Disney movies to time-honored idioms, a cat with a saucer of milk is an iconic image. There's only one problem: many cats are lactose intolerant.

Hold The Lactose

To understand how both humans and cats can become lactose intolerant, let's give a brief lesson on lactose and lactase. Lactose is the main sugar in milk, and lactase is the enzyme mammals use to break that sugar down. When mammals are born, their bodies produce plenty of lactase, which helps them digest their mother's milk. Most mammals slow down their production of lactase as they age. The same goes for humans. (In fact, only a small subset of humans have evolved the ability to produce lactase into adulthood.)

Your kitty might be attracted to cream for its high fat content, as Science Focus explains. But lactose-intolerant cats hungry for fat don't know what havoc lactose will wreak on their tummies, so they're likely to dive in all the same. According to Pet WebMD, "When a lactose-intolerant cat drinks milk, the undigested lactose passes through the intestinal tract, drawing water with it. Bacteria in the colon also ferment the undigested sugars, producing volatile fatty acids." What does this mean? An upset stomach, diarrhea, and maybe even vomiting—all common symptoms of lactose intolerance.

More Meat, Please

If you find that your cat is lactose intolerant, don't fret—while the symptoms might be alarming, Linda P. Case, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, urges that this reaction is pretty normal in cats. Instead of milk, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine recommends feeding your kitty a diet that's high in protein of other types. They're "obligate carnivores," which means they must eat meat to meet their nutritional needs. And while they shouldn't have milk, they should have lots and lots of water.

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Written by Ashley Hamer June 21, 2017

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