Can Dogs Drink Milk?

two bottles and a glass of milk

Many owners wonder, can dogs drink milk? Milk is a safe treat to offer most pups, but dog owners must consider that lactose intolerance is common in puppies, and like all human foods and beverages, milk should be given to dogs in moderation.

Is Milk Safe for Dogs?

Milk is generally safe to give to dogs in small quantities. Dogs love the taste of milk (because of its rich fat content), so a few tablespoons make a nice reward for good behavior. However, it’s important to carefully monitor your dog’s milk intake to avoid overindulgence. While milk is not toxic to dogs, its lactose, sugar, and fat content may lead to adverse health conditions if too much is consumed.

Lactose Intolerance in Dogs

Lactose intolerance is not uncommon in dogs. Like human babies, puppies produce an abundance of the enzyme lactase to break down the lactose in their mother’s milk. However, as puppies age and are weaned from breastfeeding, their bodies naturally produce less lactase. Transitioning to solid food means their bodies no longer need the enzyme in such large quantities. This departure from puppyhood means that many dogs become lactase deficient and can no longer digest milk and other dairy products properly. (Lactase deficiency in adulthood is the same reason that 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant.)

How to Tell if Your Dog is Lactose Intolerant

There are many signs of a lactose intolerant dog. The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance in pups include loose stools, vomiting, gas, lack of appetite, abdominal pain, upset stomach, bloating, and diarrhea. Unfortunately, many owners have no way of knowing their dog is lactose intolerant until symptoms occur. This is why it’s important to avoid allowing your dog to consume milk in large quantities in the first place. If your dog does display these symptoms and you suspect he or she has consumed dairy within the last 30 minutes to two hours, your dog may have significant lactose intolerance.

milk being poured into a glass

Milk Allergies and Other Allergy Risks for Dogs

A milk allergy or dairy allergy should not be confused with lactose intolerance. Milk allergies stem from the immune system and are more severe–while lactose intolerance can cause significant discomfort, a milk allergy attacks the body in other ways and can be life-threatening.

A food allergy is the body’s overreaction to consuming a specific protein. Symptoms can range from mild (i.e. rashes, hives, itching, swelling) to severe (i.e. trouble breathing, wheezing, loss of consciousness).

Any dog can develop an allergy, but food allergies are a particular risk for Labrador Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers, and Cocker Spaniels. If you suspect your dog has a food allergy, consult your veterinarian about starting an elimination diet. Aside from milk, common food allergens for dogs include beef, chicken, eggs, corn, wheat, and soy.

Other Health Risks of Milk for Dogs

As well as lactose, milk is high in sugar and fat, meaning it poses other health risks for dogs aside from the digestive issues associated with lactose intolerance. Indulging in milk too often can create long-term health issues for your pup, some of which are listed below.

Pancreatitis in Dogs

The pancreas is a vital organ that sits on the right side of the stomach. Its job is to produce enzymes aiding in food digestions, as well as hormones like insulin (which regulates blood sugar). The digestive enzymes are then deposited into the small intestine and the hormones into the bloodstream.

Pancreatitis involves the inflammation of the pancreas and is unfortunately relatively common in dogs. When digestive enzymes in the pancreas activate too early, they start to digest the pancreas itself, causing it to become inflamed. Pancreatitis can be acute (a one-time flare-up) or chronic (a recurring problem), and dogs who have suffered from acute pancreatitis are at higher risk for chronic pancreatitis.

Secondary problems can occur when pancreatic inflammation causes digestive enzymes to spill into the dog’s abdominal cavity. This can cause damage to the liver, bile ducts, gall bladder, and intestines.

puppy drinking milk out of a bowl

Obesity in Dogs

As of 2015, over 53% of America’s dogs are overweight, and as of 2014, 17.6% were classified as clinically obese. Owners love to shower their pets with treats and affection, which leads to chubby dogs being seen as normal and commonplace denial of pet obesity. But it’s important to keep an eye on your pup’s weight since obesity can lead to several other risks. These include type II diabetes, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure, skin disease, Heart and Respiratory Disease, orthopedic problems, and a decreased life expectancy by up to two and a half years.

A good rule of thumb for ensuring your dog maintains an optimal physique is feeling for his or her ribs. If you can’t feel your dog’s ribs with your hand, or if the ribs are palpable beneath a slight excess of fat, your dog may be overweight. You should also be able to notice the taper of your dog’s waist from above, and an abdominal tuck from the side. A protruding stomach or fat deposits elsewhere on the body should not be present.

Diabetes in Dogs

An unhealthy diet may, unfortunately, cause type II diabetes in dogs. Older, obese dogs are particularly at risk. Diabetes is also a disease of the pancreas–it’s essentially the organ’s failure to regulate blood sugar. With type II diabetes, some insulin-producing cells remain, but they produce an insufficient amount of insulin or are delayed in releasing it (or the tissues of the dog’s body are insulin-resistant). The prognosis for dogs with diabetes is good, but diabetic dogs require daily insulin injections and a strict diet and routine. Diabetic dogs may also need to be hospitalized during sudden health crises (i.e. diabetic ketoacidosis, a severe lack of insulin regulation).

Milk for Adult Dogs vs. Puppies

Feeding cow’s milk to an adult dog may have more severe consequences than offering a dairy treat to a puppy. Puppies produce an abundance of the enzyme lactase, which helps them digest their mother’s milk. As they grow, however, dogs stop producing so much of the enzyme, and it’s not uncommon for them to become lactase deficient. Without an ample supply of lactase, digesting cow’s milk is extremely difficult. This means that adult dogs are far more likely to be lactose intolerant than puppies.

a glass and pitcher of milk

Are There Health Benefits of Milk for Dogs?

The health benefits of drinking cow’s milk are superfluous for dogs. Whereas drinking milk provides healthy calcium for human children, for dogs this boost is unnecessary. A puppy’s immune system is boosted to its full potential by the vitamins, nutrients, electrolytes, and antibodies in his or her mother’s milk, and this support is no longer needed in adulthood.

Can Dogs Drink Milk if It’s Non-Dairy?

There are several dairy-free and lactose-free milk alternatives on the market today. This means that there may be a way to reward your pup with a dairy-esque treat, even if he or she is severely lactose intolerant. But milk alternatives come with their own set of nutritional benefits and health risks. Below is information on dogs’ ability to consume several popular milk alternatives.

Goat Milk

Goat milk is more calorically dense and higher in fat than cow’s milk but is also lower in lactose and higher in protein and calcium. Goat milk also includes prebiotic “good” bacteria, which helps promote a healthy gut ecosystem. Many owners use goat milk as a dietary supplement for their dogs, as it contains healthy fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. It’s also an anti-inflammatory, controls infections, and can help regulate your pup’s gastrointestinal pH. Goat milk is generally easily digestible, and dogs are at a lower risk of being allergic to it. However, it’s still important to feed your dog goat milk cautiously and in moderation. Goat milk still contains some lactose and is high in fat content, meaning the same risks of feeding your dog cow’s milk still carry over. Also, while there’s less risk of an allergy, the threat of an allergic reaction from your pup is always there.

small puppy being bottle fed with milk

Soy Milk

Soy milk is one of the most common plant-based kinds of milk available. Its taste is universally beloved and its high protein content means it’s often seen as one of the healthiest alternative kinds of milk. However, there are significant risks associated with feeding your dog soy milk. Soy is a common allergen for dogs (especially given soy milk’s high protein content and protein’s aforementioned relation to allergic reactions). Soy milk also often has sugar added in the production process, and consuming too much of this excess sugar can lead to diabetes and other health risks for your pup.

Nut Milk

Nut milk (i.e. almond milk, cashew milk) is a popular milk alternative for humans, with a particular boom in recent years. Nuts are considered generally safe for dogs, and nut milk is not toxic for dogs to consume, so they can certainly enjoy it as a treat or supplement. However, nut milks like almond milk are particularly high in fat. This means that health risks such as obesity and pancreatitis are heightened for dogs who consume nut milk. Moreover, for some dogs, these fattier milks can lead to digestive issues, as evidenced by watery and oily stools or diarrhea.

It’s also worth noting that macadamia nuts and black walnuts are toxic to dogs–so refrain from feeding your pup macadamia nut or walnut milk!

Oat Milk

Oat milk is a milk alternative that has recently exploded in popularity. It’s one of the most nutritionally beneficial milk alternatives, offering boosts in Vitamin D, calcium, and Vitamin B-complex. Oat milk is non-toxic and highly digestible for dogs. Its only major risk is that it’s high in fiber. Fiber is an essential part of any dog’s diet, but too much of this good thing may lead to digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is a versatile milk alternative used in a variety of cuisines. It’s not toxic for dogs to consume in moderation, and even has auxiliary health benefits like a strengthened immune system, fresh breath, and a shinier coat. However, coconut products when consumed in large amounts can cause an upset stomach, loose stools, or diarrhea in dogs. The high potassium content of coconuts also poses a risk, as high potassium content in the blood can pose a risk to your pup’s heart.

two glasses and a pitcher of milk

Raw Milk

There’s a small community dedicated to purchasing raw milk, unpasteurized cow’s or goat’s milk straight from the farm, despite its being banned in several states in the U.S. Some raw milk aficionados have found a loophole in classifying their purchases as “pet food.” But is raw milk safe for dogs to consume? Some claim that raw milk offers dogs vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that would otherwise be depleted in the pasteurization process. However, raw milk’s high-fat content and abundance of lactose pose the aforementioned risks for allergies and other health complications in dogs. Feeding your dog raw milk in large quantities could lead to diabetes, pancreatitis, obesity, an allergic reaction, or the discomfort that comes with lactose intolerance.

Lactose-Free Milk

Lactose-free milk is a helpful milk alternative for humans who struggle with lactose intolerance. But can the same be said for dogs? Lactaid or another lactose-free milk substitute is relatively safe for lactose-intolerant dogs, but, importantly, not safe for dogs with a milk or dairy allergy. Lactose-free milk won’t cause the severe gastrointestinal distress that regular cow’s milk might to a dog. But it should still be given in moderation due to its allergy risk and high sugar and fat content. Moreover, lactose-free milk doesn’t offer many health benefits for dogs, so while it may be used as a treat (or possibly as a vitamin supplement in special cases), there’s not much of a reason to offer your pup Lactaid.

Dogs and Other Dairy Products

For dogs with a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance, other dairy products are just as dangerous as milk. But for dogs without these risk factors, certain dairy products may be okay in moderation. Below are the details on whether your favorite dairy products are safe to share with your dog.

Ice Cream

Ice cream is not the best option for a dog treat due to its high sugar content. When consumed in excess, it may lead to obesity, diabetes, pancreatitis, and more. Moreover, some ice cream contains xylitol, a natural chemical compound often used as a sugar substitute that is toxic to dogs. Xylitol is also found in baked goods, toothpaste, and mints.

If your pooch is craving a cold, sweet treat (or you’d like to offer one for a special occasion), there are several dog ice cream options available on the market that are safe for him or her to consume.

puppy drinking milk out of a bowl

Cheese

Cheese is a widely-known favorite treat for dogs. It’s a great training tool, especially for less lactose-averse puppies, and its consistency means it’s great for hiding pills (if your dog is stubborn but needs to take medication). Cheese offers protein, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin B-complex, and essential fatty acids, meaning its nutritional value is high as far as treats go.

But it’s still important to feed your pup cheese only in moderation. Not only does cheese contain lactose, but it’s also exceptionally high in fat. This means it poses health risks like weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and pancreatitis to your dog. Moreover, certain cheeses contain ingredients that are toxic to dogs, including garlic, onion, and chives.

A safer alternative is low-fat cheeses like mozzarella, soft goat cheese, or cottage cheese. Cottage cheese is lower in lactose, sodium, and fat than most cheeses, making it an optimal choice.

Butter

While butter is technically not toxic to dogs and therefore safe to feed your dog in moderation, it’s not recommended. Butter contains about 80% fat, most of which is saturated fat, meaning risks like weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and pancreatitis are heightened significantly. Moreover, butter contains lactose, which may cause digestive troubles if your dog is lactose intolerant, and offers little to no nutritional boost.

Summary

Many owners wonder whether it’s safe to feed their pup cow’s milk, whether as a nutritional supplement or as a treat. The answer is yes, milk is not toxic to dogs but should be given carefully and in moderation (only a few tablespoons at a time).

A high percentage of dogs are lactose intolerant (especially in adulthood once they stop producing an abundance of lactase, so it’s safer to feed puppies milk than adult dogs). This means that cow’s milk may cause symptoms like upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting in your dog. A less common but even more threatening risk is milk or dairy allergy, which may cause anaphylaxis in your dog (Labrador Retrievers, West Highland White Terriers, and Cocker Spaniels are at particular risk).

Lactose-free or non-dairy milk may be fed to dogs in moderation, but you should closely monitor your pup’s intake and reserve these milk alternatives as treats. Some may contain common allergens for pups (i.e. soy), or their high sugar, fat, or fiber content may pose a health risk.

Milk and other dairy products may offer a boost in certain vitamins and minerals for dogs but are never needed as a part of a dog’s diet (a pup’s immune system receives all it needs from its mother’s milk as a newborn). So if your pup is a fan of milk, other dairy products, or dairy alternatives, it’s safe to offer as a treat in moderation, but certainly not needed for its nutritional value.

A few tablespoons of milk make a nice reward for a dog, but be sure to cap your pup’s intake there to avoid unnecessary health risks.

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