Welcome to another installment of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs, cats and their nutrition.
It’s a classic image: A cute little kitten, contentedly lapping at a saucer of milk. It’s almost engrained into our collective consciousness, like a Norman Rockwell painting. If you get a kitten, it’s darn near an instinct to offer them milk in a little bowl.
Unfortunately, reality shatters the romance of a kitten and milk. Like all mammals, kittens are born able to drink their mother’s milk, which means that they begin life with the ability to break down lactose, the sugar found in milk. But as cats get older, their bodies lose much of the ability to produce lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose. Once they are weaned (this often coincides with the kitten coming home with you, at 6–8 weeks of age), many kittens cannot digest cow’s milk, which is generally higher in lactose content than other milks.
While not all cats become entirely lactose intolerant, it’s just not a great idea to give them milk. If they have trouble digesting lactose, the sugar can ferment in their gut, resulting in uncomfortable bloating and gas at best, vomiting and severe diarrhea at worst.
While it’s a bummer to shatter the idyllic idea of the kitten and milk, the news is not all bad. The important thing to remember is that adult cats don’t need milk. They get everything they need from eating a high-quality, nutritionally balanced cat food. You can give your feline friend treats on occasion, but the Cornell University Feline Health Center recommends that treats don’t exceed 10 to 15 percent of the cat’s daily caloric intake. When choosing a treat, it’s a good idea to check the label to ensure that it is approved by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), the organization that sets pet food manufacturing standards.
No substitute for mother’s milk
Kittens that haven’t been weaned still need milk; if not from their mothers, from a milk replacer. Milk replacers are easy-to-digest, nutrient-dense meals in liquid form that are vital for young kittens who would still rely on mother’s milk if available. Milk replacers come in a variety of formulas –consult your veterinarian for the right one- but they are not just regular milk.
Water is vital
Kittens that are weaned need food formulated for kittens and plenty of clean, fresh water. Cats sometimes aren’t eager to drink water, but they need it all the same. Water helps cats and kittens regulate body temperature, digest food, pass salt and electrolytes through the body, and is considered an essential nutrient. If you suspect that your cat isn’t getting enough water, consult your veterinarian. But do not offer milk as a substitute.
So while it’s a romantic notion, you should refrain from offering your new little fluff ball that saucer of milk. The reality isn’t good for anyone, least of all his or her little digestive system.