Can Dogs Have Milk? Benefits and Risks of Milk for Dogs

Pet care & safety
A puppy drinking spilled milk. Is it safe for this fur-baby to be drinking milk at this age or will this incident bring him adverse gastrointestinal symptoms leading to a visit to the vet?

Looking down into those puppy dog eyes staring up at you as you sit at the table eating a meal brings up a dilemma. To share or not to share? As dog owners it is our responsibility to know what is safe for our pets to consume. Some common foods can be toxic to our canine companions or cause an upset stomach. Can dogs eat blueberries? Can dogs have watermelon? Can dogs have milk? It is our job as pet owners to do our research prior to sharing a plate with our pups. 

Can Dogs Drink Milk? 

As a vet, a frequent question I get from clients is whether they can offer their cat or dog milk. Many people envision a kitten lapping up a big, warm bowl of milk as a normal occurrence. I am not sure where this misconception comes from, but I do not recommend giving milk to cats or dogs. While there are important nutrients in milk, the average pet on a complete and balanced commercial diet should not require supplementation of any additional nutrients.  

Is Milk Good for Dogs? 

While it is loaded with nutrients like protein and calcium, milk is also high in calories, fat and natural sugar called lactose. These extra calories and fats can lead to health issue like obesity and pancreatitis. Milk is not considered toxic to dogs, but can be irritating to their digestive tracts resulting in gastrointestinal upset. Tolerance for dairy varies between individual dogs.  

Are Dogs Lactose Intolerant? 

Many of us are familiar with lactose intolerance in humans. It turns out, a lot of dogs share this sensitivity and can experience the same symptoms as humans when exposed to dairy. These symptoms can fall on the spectrum from mild to severe depending on the individual and typically involve a mixture of vomiting, diarrhea, gas and abdominal cramping. If you find yourself with a dog with diarrhea or vomiting for over 24 hours, it is important to contact your pet’s veterinarian.  

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for lactose intolerance, so the way to avoid these not so pleasant consequences is by avoiding milk and potentially other dairy products as well. In more severe cases, dairy may need to be avoided altogether, but most dogs can tolerate the small amount of lactose found in foods like cheese or yogurt. These should still only be fed in moderation to avoid issues like weight gain and pancreatitis. 

Can Puppies Drink Milk? 

Puppies are the exception… well kind of. Puppies are born with the enzyme, known as lactase, necessary to break down their mother dog’s milk. These enzymes wane in their system as they mature. Their mom’s milk is very nutrient dense and easily digested by the pups. Although they have the appropriate enzymes available, puppies should still not be fed cow’s milk due to its higher fat and sugar content. The dam’s milk also contains antibodies to protect her litter from a variety of common illnesses, therefore it is essential for them to drink this rather than cow’s milk. In the event that puppies aren’t nursing well or do not have access to the dam, a formula intended for puppies is the recommended alternative, not cow’s milk. Weaning to solid food can take place around 3-4 weeks of age. 

Milk Alternatives for Dogs 

While milk alternatives such as goat’s milk may have a lower sugar or lactose content than cow’s milk, they are still not recommended as they are also high in fat and calories. Yogurt can be a good source of calcium and probiotics but must be unflavored and low fat. Dogs on a complete and balanced commercial diet should not require any additional supplementation. If you feel your pet needs probiotics, there are better sources such as Fortiflora packets. 

Lactose intolerant humans may turn to various nut-based milks as an alternative to cow’s milk, but this is not recommended for dogs either. Oat, almond and other nut-based milks are high in fat and extra calories that again can lead to weight gain or pancreatitis. They can also contain artificial sweeteners, like xylitol, which is toxic to dogs and can injure their livers.  

Best Hydration Options for Dogs 

Water should be the primary source of hydration for dogs. Most other fluids that we as humans may enjoy should be avoided. This includes things like juices which can contain artificial sweeteners which are harmful for our fur babies. Coffee and tea can contain cocoa or caffeine which are also harmful. And of course, alcoholic beverages should not be given to dogs. It is best to just stick with water for your pet’s safety and wellbeing. 

One liquid that can be offered to dogs safely in moderation is chicken or bone broth. If given, it should be low-sodium and just a small amount to entice your pup to eat or drink their normal meal or improve water intake. 

So, Can Dogs Have Milk? 

Overall, it would seem there is more risk than benefit to offering milk to our precious fur babies. Many pets are lactose intolerant and experience symptoms similar to humans with this diagnosis. It is best to avoid giving dairy where possible, but dairy containing less lactose like cheese or yogurt can be okay when offered in moderation. If at anytime you offer your pet a new dairy treat, and they experience adverse gastrointestinal symptoms, it is best to discontinue that treat and contact your veterinarian if symptoms continue past 24 hours. You should always consult your veterinarian if you have concerns or questions about a new food or treat you would like to share with your canine companion.  

It is our responsibility as pet owners to know what foods are safe for dogs, but also to be prepared if our dogs get into something they shouldn’t. If the unexpected happens and you find yourself rushing to the vet, having dog pet insurance  beforehand will offer a financial safety net. It can help cover the costs associated with the diagnosis, treatment, and medications needed to get your pup back on their paws, easing the financial burden during a stressful time. 

The Verdict on Milk for Dogs 

We've all been there: those irresistible puppy dog eyes gazing longingly at the breakfast table. It's tempting to share your leftover cereal milk, but our dive into canine lactose intolerance suggests it may not be wise. Next time your furry friend deploys their charm offensive, resist the urge and give some extra belly rubs instead!