A lot of dog trainers swear by cheese. And some people advocate yogurt to help in cases of diarrhea. Some even give their dogs a cup of milky tea daily. But are dairy products really safe for dogs?
Well, that slightly depends on what you mean by safe. The majority of dairy isn’t going to cause lasting damage in most dogs. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t cause any harm at all.
The problem comes down to lactose, a sugar in milk. In order to break down lactose, our bodies need an enzyme called lactase. All mammals are born with this enzyme in varying levels – we need it to digest our mother’s milk.
The normal way of things is that we lose the ability to produce this enzyme in any meaningful quantities as we age and get weaned. After all, why produce an enzyme you don’t need anymore?
Humans are the exception. More accurately, some humans are the exception. In civilizations where drinking cows milk continued into adulthood, we’ve adapted so the enzymes continue into adulthood (called ‘lactase persistence’).
About a quarter of the human population can drink milk in adulthood without suffering symptoms of intolerance, and many more people are lactose-intolerant in countries where it’s not normal to drink milk – cool huh?
So, what about the dogs? Well, as mammals they’re born with the lactase enzyme in order to feed off mum. A dog’s milk contains about 3% lactose, and the pups are born with the ability to make enough lactase to cope with this.
As they wean, most of them stop making lactase and therefore lose the ability to digest lactose. Most dogs are effectively lactose-intolerant.
Does this mean it’s dangerous for them to eat milk and dairy? Not exactly. It means they can’t digest it, which can result in some pretty explosive diarrhea and flatulence. Other symptoms of lactose intolerance in dogs include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
But in most cases of short-term intake the symptoms are self-limiting- once the lactose stops, the diarrhea clears up and all goes back to normal.
Of course, some dogs will react more explosively than others, and some may even need a helping hand to stop the diarrhea.
What about if you feed a puppy cows’ milk?
Cows’ milk contains approximately 5% lactose. This is much higher than the 3% that dogs are designed to cope with. So even puppies can be mildly intolerant to cows’ milk, depending how much they’re given – if it’s enough that it overwhelms the enzymes, they’ll get symptoms of lactose intolerance.
This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to get canine milk replacer for hand-rearing puppies.
Is cheese OK for dogs?
Due to the nature of cheese processing, it often contains lower lactose levels than milk. And this might just be enough for your dog to cope with.
There are no guarantees, however, and every dog is different. Mine gets very very smelly after the tiniest cheese crumb!
It’s also worth considering the high fat content in cheese, which could potentially set off painful pancreatitis.
What about yogurt?
Like cheese, yogurt goes through processing that reduces the lactose content. But that doesn’t mean the lactose is gone altogether. Because yogurt is considered a way for humans to get ‘good’ bacteria for digestion, this sometimes spills over into the world of dogs, and yogurt gets recommended as a cure-all for digestive issues.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. There’s no evidence that the bacteria in yogurt are of any use to dogs, or that yogurt improves a dog’s digestion. And given that the sugars and lactose in yogurts will make some dogs ill, it’s generally best avoided unless you know your dog can cope.
So… no tea?
Hopefully you’ll know by now that I’m going to say that tea isn’t a great idea either.
Not only has the milk got the ability to cause symptoms of lactose intolerance, but the caffeine content can be damaging to dogs too. As far as we know, dogs get no benefit from getting a cup of tea at ‘teatime’ other than the happy feelings of inclusivity.
So why not give them something that’s safe – I like a stuffed Kong toy – whilst you have your cuppa?
Is Goat’s Milk Safe for Dogs?
Studies have shown that goat’s milk has the same lactose content as cow’s milk. So, if your dog is intolerant to cow’s milk, chances are high that he’ll be unable to digest goat’s milk too. This goes for cheese and yogurts made with goat’s milk as well – sorry dogs!
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