Should I give my dog milk to drink?

Well, probably not on the balance of things, but let’s explore this a bit.

Milk is good for you

Cow's milk is a good source of protein and calcium, as well as micronutrients including vitamin B12 and iodine. It also contains magnesium, which is important for bone development and muscle function, and whey and casein, which have been found to play a role in lowering blood pressure so milk is good for us. But while cow’s milk can be equally good for our dogs nutritionally, milk is generally best left out of a dog’s diet, except in very small quantities, because dogs, to a greater or lesser degree are lactose intolerant.

Lactose intolerance

Intolerance means that they are unable to digest it. As puppies, dogs will have had their mother’s milk which, in addition to being more appropriate than milk from another species ie cows, is a time in their lives when their gut contains the necessary enzyme – lactase – for breaking down the lactose, a sugar that is present in all mammals’ milk. As puppies move on to solids and milk is no longer an element of their diet, the levels of lactase diminish.

Adults have low levels of lactase enzyme in their gut so the lactose in milk passes undigested through their intestine and into the colon where it causes water to be drawn into the colon creating discomfort. The present of the undigested sugar triggers bacterial fermentation in the colon, frequently causing flatulence. Cow’s milk is not toxic, ie it’s not poisonous to dogs, but depending on the degree of sensitivity, it can cause skin irritation, itchiness, flatulence, vomiting and diarrhoea.

The intolerance may just manifest as a general intestinal discomfort which actually can affect your dogs’ mood. If you are feeling under the weather, you become a bit grumpy and less tolerant of noise and chaos around you. You may even stop listening to what’s being said to you. Likewise, with a dog – if their behaviour is uncharacteristic, maybe the leftover milk you gave them is the cause.

Avoid the problems, get the benefits

But all is not lost. Lactose free cow’s milk is generally widely available and goats’ milk has lower levels of lactose in it than cow’s milk. The lactose in probiotic yoghurts and kefir appears to have much lower impact that straight cow’s milk, possibly because the live cultures in these products have hydrolysed the lactose to some degree, leaving less to be broken down by the dog’s gut microbiome.

Cheese is often used as a training treat. The lactose in hard cheese like cheddar is pretty minimal so there’s no need to be concerned about giving that to your dog. Can you imagine not being able to give your dog cheese – disaster!

My sister gives her Labrador a cup of tea in the morning – in fact he demands it and won’t give her any peace if she forgets to do so. In this case, the amount of milk is small. In addition, heating milk in the hot water may break down the lactose to a small degree so that the low levels of lactase in her dog’s gut is probably able to cope with the lactose that is present in that cuppa.

The sum up of all this is that we’re best avoiding giving our dogs  ‘good ol’ coo juice’ as it is referred to in our house. However, we can give them the nutritional benefits by opting for lactose free or other forms of low lactose milk products.

By the way, the same applies to cats so the classic picture of a cat lapping at a plate of milk could be classed at animal abuse….. I jest.

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