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Can Cats Eat Cheese? Risks and Alternatives

Contrary to popular belief about cats and milk, most cats are actually lactose intolerant. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from helping themselves to foods they find appealing, and for many cats, this includes cheese. It’s not uncommon for cats to come sniffing around a cheese plate or snatch a cube of cheddar if given the chance. But can cats have cheese? While giving your cat a bite of cheese isn’t quite the same as giving them a bowl of milk, there are some things to consider. Let’s dig into everything cat owners need to know about cats and cheese products.

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Cats and dairy: myths and misconceptions

Cats and dairy have gone together in advertising and pop culture like peanut butter and jelly for at least a century now. From vintage posters of cats lapping up bowls of milk to everyone’s favorite cartoon cat, Garfield, scarfing down cheesy lasagnas in every Sunday newspaper. Unfortunately, most cats are lactose intolerant (past kittenhood) and would likely become ill from consuming that much milk or cheese. So where did this concept of cats and dairy come from? It’s believed these myths go back to the days of the farm cat.

Historically, cats were 'employed' on farms to help with rodent control. They lived and roamed around the barns and milking areas. Cats are attracted to fatty, protein-rich foods so they were known to help themselves to the milking pails, often seeking out the fatty cream that would rise to the top. This gave rise to depictions of cats drinking milk in artwork and advertising, and cat owners giving their cats milk as a treat. Since most of these cats lived outside and didn’t have their eliminations monitored, gastrointestinal side effects likely went unnoticed. Today’s house cats would leave some very noticeable evidence for their owners to clean up after consuming dairy products.

Is milk bad for cats?

Milk and other dairy products are not bad for cats in the toxic sense, but they are likely to cause gastrointestinal problems and other symptoms. As kittens, cats can digest the milk from their mothers because they produce high amounts of lactase, the enzyme needed to break down the lactose (sugar) in milk. But as kittens stop nursing, their bodies slow down on lactase production, so any ingested lactose begins to ferment in the intestines, causing gastrointestinal upset. By adulthood, most cats can no longer digest lactose, i.e., they become lactose-intolerant.

In addition to lactose intolerance, some cats can have dairy allergies that can cause dermatological issues. There’s no nutritional need for cats to have milk or dairy products and their high fat and sugar content can contribute to obesity and diabetes, so they are best avoided.

Symptoms of lactose intolerance in cats:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Itchy, inflamed skin and hair loss (common with dairy allergies)
  • Increased thirst and dehydration

Cats with certain medical conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), diabetes, liver disease, and pancreatitis can also have more extreme symptoms and complications from ingesting dairy.

Can cats have lactose-free milk?

Yes, but don’t head to the dairy case at your local supermarket for the Lactaid. Check out your local pet store instead. There are safe milk alternatives for cats at pet retailers. These aptly named 'cat milks' are lactose-free and specially formulated to be easy to digest for cats so you can treat your feline friend without risking an upset stomach. Like all treats, however, feed sparingly.

Can cats eat cheese?

Whether cats can have cheese can depend on the cat and the type of cheese. Some cheeses are lower in lactose and easier for cats to digest (in small quantities), and some cats tolerate dairy better than others. You should always consult your veterinarian about your cat’s individual nutritional needs and food tolerances, especially when it comes to dairy products.

With so many other tasty treats available for cats, it is safer to avoid cheese. Besides the issue of most adult cats being lactose intolerant, cheese is also very high in calories. In order for your cat's diet to remain complete and balanced, no more than 10% of their caloric intake should come from treats or table scraps.

Liza Cahn, DVM

There is a misconception that hard cheeses are safe for cats and that soft cheeses aren’t. While soft cheeses are off-limits due to their higher lactose content and certain cultures, this doesn't mean that hard cheeses are automatically safe. Hard, aged cheeses like parmesan can be very high in salt, which can contribute to dehydration and kidney problems in cats.

If you’re going to feed your cat cheese, there are a few things to consider:

  • Talk to your vet about what your cat can have based on their health and lifestyle.
  • Stick to small quantities of plain, low-salt cheese varieties like cheddar or Swiss, by itself (no pizza or mac-and-cheese for kitty).
  • Never feed any 'moldy' cheeses like blue cheese, gorgonzola, or stilton, as these can contain cultures that are toxic to cats.
  • Monitor your cat for any signs of gastrointestinal distress (most commonly diarrhea).
  • Don’t feed it often; reserve it as a special treat or when you need a little help enticing your cat into their carrier.

If your cat doesn’t handle cheese well or you’d prefer not to risk the potential for stomach upset, there are plenty of safer treat options you can give your cat in place of cheese.

Alternatives to cheese for cats

If you want to give your cat a cheesy treat without risking gastrointestinal upset, consider some cheese-flavored cat treats. You’ll find plenty of different cat treats on the market that come in cheesy flavors that cats love. From crunchy, cheese snacks to 'cheese sauces' that can go on top of their food or be eaten out of a lick mat or puzzle toy for added enrichment — there are plenty of options.

My cat ate cheese and got sick, what do I do?

If your cat ate a small amount of cheese and is experiencing only mild gastrointestinal upset (inappetence, soft stools), you can monitor them closely and contact your vet’s office if symptoms persist after 24 hours. If your cat is experiencing vomiting, diarrhea, or abdominal pain, or they ate a large amount of cheese, a high salt cheese, or a 'moldy' cheese (i.e., blue cheese), contact your veterinarian right away.

If you’re unsure of what your cat ate (if they got into the trash or a leftover cheese platter) or are unsure of the severity of their symptoms — don’t hesitate to contact your vet or pet poison control.

  • ASPCA Animal Poison Control 888-426-4435
  • Pet Poison Helpline 855-764-7661

Be advised, there is a fee for these services.

Will pet insurance cover gastrointestinal upset in cats from eating dairy?

Most pet insurance covers treatment for gastrointestinal upset due to dietary indiscretions. However, if your cat has been treated for something similar prior to coverage, you’ll want to check your policy’s details on pre-existing conditions. Some insurers consider these types of episodes as pre-existing, especially if there is a documented dairy allergy or history of gastrointestinal problems from eating certain things.

The final verdict on cats and cheese

Overall, certain types of cheese can be relatively safe for cats in small quantities, but they are not necessarily the best food for them to be consuming. With many cats being lactose intolerant, it’s always a good idea to approach feeding dairy products cautiously and in moderation. And, as always — talk to your vet about your cat’s dietary needs and tolerances.

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