A common image is that of a cat lapping up milk in a bowl. Cartoons, films, and even adverts depict the two as almost inseparable. So, exactly why do cats like milk? Did cats develop a taste for milk from suckling on their mothers? Cats could also have evolved to enjoy milk from time spent in barns where cow’s milk was aplenty. Whatever it is, something seems to always pull the two together.
Upon a close look at the subject, we found out that despite the relationship between these two, milk can actually be harmful to your cat. This stems from the fact that cats, just like humans, can be lactose intolerant. In fact, milk does not offer much in terms of nutrition to your feline. How can this be when kittens thrive on their mother’s milk? Let’s find out when you can give your cat milk and when not to in order to keep him healthy.
In this article, we will first unravel why cats enjoy milk so much. We will also take an in-depth look at why giving your cat milk may not be such a good idea. Read on to find out more on lactose intolerance in cats, alternatives to milk, and why water may be a better option.
Milk is a Cat’s First Food
Cats’ fascination with milk is an innate one. Right from birth, kittens will nibble at their mother trying to locate the nipples. Even though kittens are born blind, their sense of smell is well developed. They can smell their mother’s milk quite well and start wiggling towards it.
The queen is well aware that her kittens can’t see or move efficiently and will adjust her body to accommodate them. She will sleep on her side, making her nipples easily accessible. If her babies start moving towards the wrong direction, she softly paws at them to redirect them.
#1: Kittens Can’t Survive the First Hours of Their Lives Without Milk
This initial feeding happens within minutes of giving birth. If the kittens are slow in making their way to the nipples, then it’s up to you to guide them. This is usually the case if the mother is extremely tired from a long or painful labor. According to vets, kittens should be suckling by least 30-40 minutes after birth; they can’t survive the first hours of their lives without milk.
The first 48 hours are crucial to a cat’s development. This is the time that the queen gets to form a lasting bond with her kittens. She gets to clean them and keep them safe and warm. The fact that the babies rely solely on their mama for sustenance makes them grow close to her, and they develop a lasting taste for milk.
#2: Milk Builds Their Immune System
Kittens are born with an underdeveloped immune system. This makes them susceptible to diseases. If they become infected by any illness during the very first days, they may succumb. The good thing is that nature has an answer for this misgiving, and it all has to do with milk.
The very first secretion of a cat’s mammary glands is milk full of nutrients and antibodies. This special milk is known as colostrum and is produced during the first 48 hours after birth. It has high energy content and provides the building blocks for the kitten’s immunity.
Colostrum is what gives milk a yellow hue. It contains maternal antibodies which are passed to the kittens. The antibodies help in developing immunity which the newborns lack. This form of immunity is known as passive immunity. This immunity is similar to what is passed to the fetus through the placenta during pregnancy.
Passive immunity is Mother Nature’s way of giving your kitty a head start in an unforgiving world. Kittens receive immunity from diseases that their mother has recently been vaccinated against. This is reason enough to ensure that a molly does not miss her vaccinations, especially during pregnancy.
If a molly is vaccinated against a viral disease like panleukopenia, she develops antibodies. These are passed on to her litter through colostrum. The disease is usually fatal to newborns since it attacks rapidly growing cells. It will attack anything from the developing digestive system to the nervous system. The virus is common in nature and will likely attack kittens in their formative days.
These antibodies manifest as large protein molecules. Newborns are able to absorb these molecules into their bloodstream unchanged. The ability to absorb antibodies from colostrum, however, only lasts for about 18 hours after birth. Thereafter the digestive system breaks down antibodies in the colostrum by hydrolysis—the addition of water to protein molecules to form smaller compounds.
Mollies continue to produce antibody-rich milk for several weeks after birth. This has led to the notion that letting older kittens breastfeed on a nursing queen will improve their immunity. This is a misconception since after 18 hours newborns lose the ability to absorb antibodies and they never regain it.
Passive immunity plays a big role in the effectiveness of vaccines. At a very young age, kittens may not build immunity from being vaccinated. This is due to the high number of antibodies in their bloodstream. As they age, though, the number of maternal antibodies drop significantly, allowing vaccinations to be effective.
Weaning a Kitten from Their Mother’s Milk
Just like human babies, kittens have to be weaned from their mother’s milk. This is a transition process whereby a kitten is introduced to solid food.
Nature takes care of this by having the mother withdraw herself from the litter or by refusing them to suckle. The introduction of a solid diet allows the nursing cat to regain her health. This is because her body is no longer tasked with milk production.
Weaning starts when kittens are four weeks old and is completed at around 8-10 weeks. This transition begins when a mother notices her kids becoming more independent.
You will notice that a month after being born, kittens will start to wander far from their mother. Most of their senses are well developed at this age. They can see far and find their way back to the nest without much help.
See Also: How to Wean Kittens
In most cases, cat owners resort to feeding cow’s milk to kittens during weaning. The practice continues even after they are fully weaned and no longer dependent on the queen. This is one of the most misguided practices owing to the fact that most cats are lactose intolerant. Yes, you read that right—cow’s milk is not good for cats!
Why Milk is Bad for Cats
Lactose intolerance is a normal occurrence for both felines and humans. It’s the inability to digest or break down lactose, which is a type of sugar found in milk. The idea of feeding cow’s milk to cats comes from the fact newborn kittens survive on milk. What you may not know is that a kitten’s ability to digest milk reduces as they age.
#1: The Lack of Necessary Enzymes to Digest Milk
To digest lactose, the body needs to produce lactase, an enzyme which is also known as ß-D galactosidase. The special enzyme is tasked with splitting lactose into simple sugars. It’s produced in the small intestine of mammals.
The action of lactase on lactose produces two simple sugars, i.e. glucose and galactose. These are compounds which the body can fully digest by absorbing into the bloodstream.
Since milk is the first nourishment that mammals encounter, the body produces enough lactase during infancy. As kittens start weaning off milk, the levels of lactase drop. By week 10 of age, the lactase in the body lowers to the point that it may not be possible to digest milk. With time, the production may cease altogether, making your feline lactose intolerant.
Lactose intolerance will cause discomfort to your fur baby’s tummy but will not be enough to keep him off milk. Cats are attracted to the cream that settles on top of a bowl especially when the milk is derived directly from a cow.
Cream is rich in fats that cats find particularly enjoyable. Cream also has less lactose compared to milk. For example, whole milk contains about 24% more lactose than whipped cream.
Cats have evolved to associate milk with the creamy treat. The downside to this is that today’s milk contains virtually no fat. This is after it’s processed to expel fats to extend its shelf life. Cats are also attracted to the animal proteins which milk contains. The protein’s smell makes milk alluring, and most cats can’t resist the urge to lap it up.
Cats are obligate carnivores; this means that their diet is dependent solely on meat tissue from other animals. Milk serves no dietary requirement and cats can do happily without it; whether it’s in cream or any other dairy product, milk won’t do your cat any good.
Felines need high protein diets which can only be sourced from the flesh of other animals. Eating meat is also the best way for them to ingest essential nutrients that they are unable to synthesize.
#2: Too High in Calories
That said, not all cats are lactose intolerant. Try carrying out a simple test by offering him at least two tablespoons of the treat and look out for symptoms. If no symptoms manifest, then you can feed him dairy products but in moderation—purely as occasional treats.
Even if your cat is not lactose intolerant, there is still a need for caution when feeding him milk because cats are prone to obesity. They can also be exposed to a host of other health problems if they get used to a high-calorie diet.
Dairy products are not tailored to provide a balanced diet; they comprise of high amounts of fats, proteins, and calories. Overindulgence in the stuff will make your cat gain weight, becoming exposed to diabetes, liver problems, and possible joint pains.
Alternatives for Milk
If your cat is lactose intolerant but still insists on lapping up milk whenever he lays eyes on it, then go for milder products. Dairy products such as yogurt, cheese, butter, and ice cream could work for your kitty. These are products that have less lactose compared to milk.
Their processing usually involves dilution with water and the addition of fats. At the same time, products such as yogurt are cultured. This means that microorganisms have acted on the dairy portion of their ingredients to partially digest the lactose. This lowers the chances of intolerance reactions. Caution should still be taken with the amount of cheese or ice cream your cat takes in a day.
You can also simply give your cat more water. Unlike milk which may or may not cause discomfort to your furry friend, water is an absolutely necessary part of his diet.
Encourage your kitty to drink more water by withdrawing milk. Place several water bowls strategically around the house. If your fur baby loves to drink right from the tap or flowing water, then invest on a kitty fountain.
See Also: DIY Cat Water Fountain
Water helps in the regulation of body temperature, food digestion, and elimination. It also keeps tissues well lubricated and aids in electrolytes movements through the body. Water is vital to your cat’s health, and it contains zero calories or fats; it doesn’t put your kitty in danger of being obese or sick.
We know for a fact that cats love milk. Besides it being their first diet, they are attracted to the proteins contained in milk, and no amount of discouragement can convince them otherwise.
Kittens can benefit from milk because their bodies are able to digest the lactose contained in it, but as they grow older, the level of lactase, the lactose-digesting enzyme may not be produced anymore. This means that your grown cat does not draw any nutritional benefits from milk.
What you cat needs is a diet rich in meat. If he can tolerate lactose, you can go ahead and give him dairy but only as a treat. You might also consider milder products like yogurt, cheese, and ice cream but they should be given in moderation to avoid obesity. Better still, let your cat have more water which is an essential part of his diet and does not cause any discomforts, like the ones that could arise from lactose intolerance.
Cat owners sometimes mistake lactose intolerance as an allergic reaction. The main difference comes in the way the symptoms manifest. When the body is exposed to food substances that it views as invasive, the immune system attacks. This results in skin rashes and itchiness.
Your fur baby will appear to over groom himself as he tries to alleviate the itchiness. Every time the body is exposed to the same allergen, the body reacts more violently than the last. This is in contrast to intolerance whereby the symptoms last only as long as lactose is in the body. Once the milk has gone through the digestive systems and expelled, the symptoms cease, and your fur baby is back to his usual jolly self.
Do you constantly give your cat milk? Do you think it brings him any problems? Share your thoughts on cats and milk with us. For this and any other feedback, leave your comments below, and don’t forget to check out our article on what are cats allergic to so you can tell the difference between an allergic reaction and lactose intolerance.