Can you or should you give kittens milk?
There is an evergreen myth that kittens and cats love and should be given cow’s milk. This image most probably comes from the cartoons showing cats enjoying a bowl of milk. Despite these cute illustrations, the truth is that nutritionally cats do not require milk and can live their whole life happily without drinking even one drop of it. Apart from the fact that they do not need milk, it can also cause problems and make them sick.
After all, kittens should only drink their mother’s milk and after weaning they should not be fed with cow’s milk.
The only nourishment your kitten receives in the first four weeks is from the milk of her mother which is the best milk for her needs as it contains the right mix of protein, fat, and nutrients. So no additional type of food, drink or even milk is required at this stage.
Soon after that, she starts eating soft solid food, however, she is still mostly dependent on the mother’s milk. During the next one month, the amount of mother milk’s intake gradually decreases, while the solid food given to her increases. The beloved furry friend will continue weaning until she is two months old and by the time she is ready to leave her mother she will eat only solid food.
Feeding her with different types of food this time will help her having an excellent eating habit throughout her life. After twelve weeks kittens will have all their nutritional needs fulfilled using only wet and dry food. I have already written about what to feed kittens and types of food to avoid to keep them happy and healthy. You will find more relevant and detailed information in that post.
The reason why you should not give kittens milk is because most of them (if not all) lack sufficient amount of the enzyme lactase, which would help them break down milk and digest it. This is actually not a problem, in fact, it is completely normal.
Although in their first weeks (while having mother’s milk) young kittens’ bodies produce plenty of the enzyme lactose, but as they grow up less amount of this enzyme is produced. Since this enzyme is necessary to digest lactose (which is the sugar found in milk), producing less amount of enzyme lactase means less ability to digest lactose, therefore, kittens’ intolerance to lactose increases over time as producing this enzyme decreases. By the time they are twelve weeks old, the nutrients in their mothers’ milk are no longer sufficient for the growing bodies and with this time they are no longer able to produce the sufficient amount of the enzyme lactose, and so they eventually become lactose intolerant.
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If you present your kitten with a bowl of milk, she may happily consume it but after a while, she might get sick and start suffering from the result. When a lactose intolerant cat is having milk, she is not able to digest the lactose in it properly (because of the lack of enzyme lactase), so it will remain in her digestive system. Sooner or later this will upset her stomach and lead to vomiting or diarrhea. Diarrhea then may have other serious side effects such as dehydration which could be fatal to a little kitten.
If you still wish to give milk…
Despite all this, not all the cats are lactose intolerant. The only way to truly know whether your furry little friend is the same or not is to feed her some milk and wait for the result (I hope you do not try this). If it seems she can tolerate cow’s milk, and you do not experience any symptoms within a day, you can give her in moderation but only as a treat.
Specially processed lactose-free cat milk is available from many supermarkets or pet food stores, but I would still suggest you to ask your veterinarian about the right kind of milk for your kitten before you purchase it.
The situation is quite different when you have an orphan kitten that should still be weaning but unfortunately, the mother cat is not around.
Kittens get most of their nutrients from their mothers’ milk, therefore, if she is not available, you must provide milk to ensure the little kitties’ survival. Yet, you should not give them cow’s milk as it can upset their tiny stomach resulting in diarrhea.
The first step to do when having an orphan baby kitty is to contact the veterinarian or local pet community and ask if any nursing cat is available. It is not only beneficial because of the nursing cat’s milk natural nutrients, but the little kitten might acquire some new littermates also who will help her learn some feline social skills.
If, unfortunately, the nursing cat cannot be found for the little furball, do ask your nearest vet what kind of kitten milk replacer is available, how to bottle feed a young kitten and what else has to be done for her health and safety. You most probably will be advised to buy specially formulated kitten milk which contains the necessary ingredients for kitten nourishment and these formulas usually can be purchased at vet hospitals or you can find my recommendation and order it here online.
As we discussed earlier, after the very first four weeks kittens can start eating soft solid food but they have to get use to it gradually, so you can start decreasing the kitten milk replacer and increasing the food intake. By the time they reach the age of two months they should only eat solid food. You can read more about the healthy and unhealthy food in the related post as well as you can learn about the kittens’ development in the related article.
If not milk then what else
It might be surprising, but all that a cat ever needs is water. Fresh, clean, room temperature water. It helps to regulate the feline’s body temperature and also assists in the digestion of food.
Kittens should start drinking water by the time they reach four to six weeks, and the water intake should then gradually increase while the milk intake decrease.
Always make sure your kitten has plenty of fresh water and encourage her to drink regularly by placing several drinking bowls or even cat water fountain in your house.
Despite all that cute cartoons showing cats adoring milk, kittens should not be fed with cow’s milk. Instead, all they need is water. Plenty of fresh, clean, room temperature water.