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Can cats eat cheese?

Grey tabby cat eating cheese

The majority of cats are lactose intolerant.

© Shutterstock

Dairy products are a bit of a bind for carnivores. Find out whether cats can eat cheese or whether they are best to avoid it.

By Nick Whittle

Updated on the 08/03/2021, 14:00

Cats are obligate carnivores. That means that unlike us humans who can eat and digest just about anything organic and non-toxic, cats are only good at digesting and processing the meat of another animal.

Despite the popular image of cats enjoying a refreshing bowl of milk or even Garfield scarfing down a lasagne, cats actually struggle to digest dairy products. In fact, the majority of cats are lactose intolerant. That means feeding kitty cheese cubes, even as an occasional treat, is not such a good idea. 

Is cheese bad for cats?

Cats, like humans, have specific nutritional requirements that cheeses do not meet. Aside from the high fat content, there are many things that make cheese undesirable for a cat's diet. For example, take a look at this ingredient list for cheddar cheese:

Typical Values Typical Values Per 100g
Energy Values 1725KJ/416 kcal

Fat

(of which saturates)

34.9g

21.7g

Carbohydrates

(of which sugars)

0.1g

0.1g

Protein 25.4g
Fibre 0.0g
Salt 1.8g
Calcium 739mg (92% RI* per 100g)

Cheddar cheese is actually one of the healthiest options if you are determined to feed your cat cheese, due to its low lactose content. However, most cheeses (including cottage cheese, cream cheese, blue cheese, and non-dairy cheese), contain more lactose and, just like cheddar, also contain high levels of fat and salt.

Additionally, most cheeses are made from cow's milk. Despite popular opinion, cow’s milk is not a choice beverage of cats. It upsets their stomachs because they are lactose intolerant. Cats do not have the right digestive enzymes to break down the milk sugars, which means it sits in the intestines and ferments, making your cat feel unwell. Thus, for a cat that is fed cheese on a regular basis, the likelihood of him being 100% fit and well is slim.

Most cow’s milk is also high in salt and fat and delivers a fair punch of carbohydrates. Cats do not need additional carbohydrates and they certainly don’t need too much salt. Any energy they need comes via the protein they digest from a meat-based meal.

Be particularly wary of flavoured cheeses, some of which contain ingredients that can be highly toxic to your cat. For instance, some cheeses include onions and garlic, some contain spices and others contain chocolate. Some artificial flavouring is also toxic.

Find out more about what makes food appealing to your cat.

Can kittens eat cheese?

A kitten has the ability to process milk. Clearly, it would need to do so in order to drink its mother’s milk. Thus, it is likely kittens can process cheese more readily than cats. However, there are two points arising from this:

  1. A kitten should not have solid food before it is weaned
  2. When it is weaned its tolerance to lactose drops off.

Furthermore, a kitten has a fragile and underdeveloped digestive system. If a kitten is fed something as rich and as fatty as cheese, its intestines could end up damaged. Therefore, even though theoretically kittens might be able to process cheese better than an adult cat, you should not feed your kitten cheese.

What happens if cats eat cheese?

A piece of cheese once in a while may cause your cat to suffer from mild vomiting or diarrhoea, particularly if your cat is extremely intolerant of lactose or has a lactose allergy.

Eating cheese long term, however, can cause more chronic problems for your cat. For example, it can lead your cat to becoming obese. The condition can lead to several nasty diseases that without proper care and management can lead to the cat’s demise.

Here is just a handful of the knock-on health problems associated with obesity. 

  • Breathing problems 
  • Decreased immunity
  • Decreased stamina and lethargy 
  • Diabetes 
  • Dystocia (problems giving birth)
  • Hepatic lipidosis     
  • Osteoarthritis    
  • Skin inflammations    
  • Urinary tract diseases

Eating cheese regularly will also cause your cat to become malnourished because they are unable to digest the nutrients found in milk.

What foods are poisonous for cats?

There are lots of foods that are toxic to cats. Things like custard, grapes, raisins, garlic and onions can cause a cat a lot of distress (seizures, vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, organ failure) and if taken in big enough doses can have fatal consequences.

Some of us have made admirable choices about the sorts of things we eat. We are divided into meat-eaters, beegans, vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians and all sorts of other types of diet. But when it comes to our pets, we can’t enforce the same regimens. Cats need meat. If they don’t have meat, they will become unwell. Most good-quality cat foods are formulated to provide a cat with everything he needs to live a long and healthy life. Cat food has minerals and nutrients in it that a cat can easily digest and process. If you choose to feed your cat anything more or less than a balanced and well-considered cat food diet you are skating on thin ice!

If your cat scavenges a small lump of cheese now and then, it is not going to cause him serious harm. But you must be mindful of its effect on your pet. Be vigilant of his health after he eats a bit of cheese. If he seems unwell, then call your veterinarian for advice.

If you’re keen to give your cat a tasty treat, you can try a cat-safe food instead. Something like cooked chicken or eggs, cooked carrots, or even some types of fruit are worthwhile foods to substitute the cheese with. There is also a special formulated ‘cat cheese’ on the market.

So, is it ok to give cats cheese?

Even though cheese isn’t considered toxic to cats, it can still make your cat feel unwell, so it’s best to avoid the cheesy treats. While you probably don’t have to run straight to your vet if your cat has munched down a slice of cheese, it’s still a good idea to keep an eye on him for the rest of the day.

As a responsible owner you should consider your furry friend’s health at all times when providing him with food and remember: a well-balanced and good-quality cat food is really all he needs. Anything more should strictly be fed to him in moderation only.

Reviewed by Dr Jo de Klerk, BVetMed (Hons) MScTAH MRCVS 

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