Can kittens drink milk? Is it harmful and what types can they consume?

can kittens drink milk
(Image credit: Getty)

Can kittens drink milk? Cartoons would have us believe that a saucer of cow’s milk is the best kitten treat, but in reality, it has the potential to make kittens sick.

For the first four weeks of life, kittens consume solely their mother’s milk (or kitten formula), which provides them with all of the nutrients they need to thrive. Once they start weaning, they begin to lose the ability to break down lactose, and the majority of kittens become lactose intolerant.

For this reason, milk can make kittens ill when they drink it, causing symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Kittens are especially prone to dehydration, so they can become very sick very quickly. Despite its tastiness, cow’s milk is not particularly nutritious for cats either, as they are obligate carnivores, so kittens who drink milk can also develop nutritional deficiencies.

If you are feeding your kitten the best kitten food, which provides complete and balanced nutrition, they shouldn’t need milk at all, and there are plenty of other kitten treats that are totally safe when you want to spoil your kitty.

Read on to learn more about why cow’s milk should be avoided in kittens and grown cats, what happens when you give it to them, and what types of milk are safe for kittens.

Dr Diana Hasler
Dr. Diana Hasler

Dr. Diana Hasler, MRCVS is a 2018 graduate of the University of Edinburgh Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. She has experience working as a small animal veterinarian in first opinion practice, where she has treated many dogs, cats, rabbits, and rodents. She has also recently branched out into the field of medical communications and does freelance work as a medical editor and writer.

Is milk good for kittens?

Let's get one thing out of the way first. If you give milk to a kitten, you'll find that they absolutely love it. It's creamy, it's tasty and cats are attracted to the smell of the fats and proteins contained within dairy.

But just because kittens (and adult cats) enjoy the taste of milk doesn't mean it's in any way good for them. The main problem is that most of our feline friends soon become lactose intolerant which means they don't have the lactase enzyme that's needed to digest cow milk.

To that end, it should never form part of a kitten's daily diet and neither should it be used as a treat. Instead, you should digest our top kitten feeding tips to see how you can raise a healthy kitty and remember that milk doesn't contain the essential nutrients needed for health or growth. 

If kittens are given it often, then they could even come to depend on it and prefer to drink rather than eat. Again, this will make them nutritionally deficient while also giving them a diet high in fat.

can kittens drink milk

(Image credit: Getty)

What milk can kittens drink?

The only milk a kitten should drink is the milk produced by their mothers. They will drink this until they are weaned around the age of four-weeks, at which point most (but not all) kittens start to lose the ability to digest the sugar found in the liquid.

If, however, the kitten is an orphan or needs to be fed by hand, they could be given “kitten milk formula”, again up to four or five-weeks-old. This replacer is created to provide the nutrition found in their mother's milk and it contains less lactose or, in some cases, no lactose at all.

Once a kitten has reached the weaning age, it's time to get them on to cat food and water. As with dairy, these formulas also contain fat and they shouldn't be used after their initial life stage – kittens are fully weaned when they're a couple of months old.

What happens if a kitten drinks milk?

Drinking milk will generally make a kitten ill and it can cause stomach pain, diarrhea and vomiting, leading to dehydration. 

Given how small kittens are, this puts a lot of strain on their tiny bodies. Milk can also cause a cat to become deficient in many vitamins and minerals while consuming a diet rich in fat, potentially causing unwanted weight gain.

Solid food is always the best way forward, supplemented by water. Seek help if you're having problems with a kitten not eating and try our fixes if you're experiencing common kitten behavior problems. 

Moggies can also be encouraged to drink water with the best pet water fountains. As we've already said, water is always preferable to milk once a kitten has been weaned.

A grey kitten eating from a can of kitten food

(Image credit: Getty)

Should I give kittens goat's milk instead?

You will find many cat owners and veterinarians will instead recommend giving goat's milk to kittens but it's not quite so simple as switching animals. 

Goat's milk also contains lactose even if it's not as abundant as in cow's milk and while it may be lower in fat, it's by no means fat-free. If you did decide to give goat's milk to a kitten then there are some benefits such as vitamins A and B5, potassium and biotin. 

Yet kittens will get all the nutrients they need from the best kitten food and they don't need cow's, goat's or indeed soy or almond milk. In fact,  you should totally stay away from the soy and nut-based milks because they can cause tummy upset while providing little to no nutritional benefit.

For more advice on what your cat can and can’t consume, take a look at ‘can kittens have catnip?’ for our thoughts on this popular plant and whether it’s safe for your little one.