Are dogs lactose intolerant, and can they have dairy products?
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Are dogs lactose intolerant, and can they have dairy products?

Dogs
Health & Safety

Quite a lot of the food and drink that humans enjoy and consume quite safely can be dangerous for dogs – like chocolate, grapes and onions. However, as well as the fairly long list of human foods that are outright poisonous or toxic to our canine companions, there are also a lot of other foods and drinks that fall into something of a grey area.

These are foods and drinks that might not be outright poisonous or harmful but that are either not good for dogs, or that dogs might be sensitive to or unable to digest properly, which can lead to digestive discomfort and stomach upsets, as well as a range of other problems.

One of the types of products that fall into this grey area are dairy products – things like cows’ milk, cheese, cream and yoghurt. Many dog owners are unsure as to whether or not dairy products are ok to feed to dogs, or if dogs are lactose intolerant and shouldn’t have dairy products at all.

In this article we will examine whether or not dogs can have dairy products, and whether or not dogs are lactose intolerant. Read on to learn more.

Are dogs lactose intolerant?

The digestive system of dogs, the type of nutrition they need to thrive and the foods that are good and bad for them are rather different than those for humans, although as mammals that have evolved side by side for millennia, we actually have more in common in this respect than we do apart.

The answer to the question of whether or not dogs are lactose intolerant isn’t completely clear cut – just as is the case with people, some dogs are lactose intolerant and others aren’t.

However, while we as humans tend to be raised on dairy products and continue to drink milk and start eating other foods with dairy in them from early childhood, this is not the case for dogs in the wild, and dogs would not get the chance to consume dairy if we didn’t provide it!

Pups are of course nursed on milk by their dams – but the makeup of this milk is quite different to that of cows or other animals, just as human breastmilk is too – and pups and babies are weaned off it at the right time.

Dogs that have to source their own food in the wild get by with a combination of hunting and scavenging, and things like milk and cheese aren’t windfalls that commonly fall into the path of opportunistic wild dogs!

This means that dairy products aren’t a natural part of the dog’s diet and they aren’t used to eating them and don’t have the same digestive structures as animals like humans that have evolved to consume dairy as standard.

What is lactose?

Lactose is a word that we commonly associate with milk and other dairy products – but what is it? Well, lactose is a type of naturally occurring sugar compound that is constructed of two chemically linked molecules, and which is present in cows’ milk and products made with cows’ milk. Other forms of milk (like goats’ milk) also contain lactose, although to a much lesser degree.

This is why goats’ milk and other alternatives may be suitable for people who are lactose intolerant, whilst cows milk often is not.

For a dog (or a human) to be able to digest milk and dairy products and get the nutritional benefit from them, their bodies must be able to produce a specific enzyme called lactase, which breaks down the lactose itself into sugars that can be absorbed by the body. Many dogs can’t produce this enzyme in sufficient quantities to properly digest milk and dairy products, and some dogs don’t produce it at all, because they’ve never need it historically.

What happens if a lactose intolerant dog eats dairy products?

Unless your dog is highly lactose intolerant, you might not spot any symptoms if they consume dairy products. How much they consume and how rich in lactose the product is also impacts upon how it affects a dog, and so something like skimmed milk will cause less of an impact than double cream or a rich milk.

For dogs that are highly lactose intolerant, consuming a lot of dairy may result in some obvious and acute symptoms, such as stomach cramps, pain and discomfort, diarrhoea, and a general feeling of being unwell and uncomfortable.

Dogs that are slightly lactose intolerant might seem to be a little more gassy or have louder stomach sounds than normal, but this may be the limit of it.

In very rare cases, certain dogs might actually be allergic to dairy products and unable to handle a certain protein found in milk and milk products, and consuming them may generate an acute and systemic allergic reaction that might even be life threatening. However, this is highly unusual.

Is it safe to feed my dog dairy products?

If your dog can digest lactose effectively, dairy products shouldn’t pose a problem for them. Many dog owners use cubes of cheese as training treats or feed their dogs probiotic yoghurts with no ill effects, and if your dog has always enjoyed these things and doesn’t react badly to them, there is no reason to stop giving them.

However, review things objectively – does your dog seem to be gassy or have loose stools when they’ve had a certain amount of dairy, or do their stomachs sound noisier than usual afterwards? If so, your dog might have a low-level lactose intolerance, and you should consider feeding them alternatives.

It is generally fairly easy to substitute non-dairy alternatives for milk-based products, so this is something that you might also want to consider. Also, there’s nothing present in dairy products that dogs vitally need for complete nutrition that they can’t get from another source, so be a little speculative about feeding dairy products to your dog in general.

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