Updated - Dec 11th, 2020
Cheese is not toxic to cats. However, cats don’t have the digestive enzymes necessary to break dairy down into something nutritious. So while a small piece of cheese probably won’t hurt your kitty, cats are lactose intolerant and shouldn’t eat cheese in any amount larger than a small complementary piece given occasionally.
Let’s look at the cat and see why!
The fascinating obligate carnivore:
Cats are classified as obligate carnivores. This means that cats can ONLY get the nutrition they need from animal-based protein – muscles and organs.
If you think about a wildcat’s diet, they eat small rodents and birds. Animal proteins like muscle and organ meats have high amino acids that cats need to survive. The only plant nutrients they eat are the metabolized amounts in their prey’s digestive system.
Over time, the cat has evolved into being able to process plant nutrients if they’re already metabolized by their prey. The liver enzymes needed to break down those nutrients are long gone from the cat’s digestive system, leaving them unable to metabolize them effectively.
Because of this evolutionary change, cats have much shorter digestive tracts (shorter intestines and smaller stomachs) that break down the proteins into nutrients quickly and effectively, but not high fats or plant proteins.
There’s so much more about obligate carnivores that make them fascinating, but we’ll leave that for another time. Let’s move on to see if your cat can eat cheese.
Cheese in a nutshell:
Cheese is a by-product of an animal. There are no muscle or organ nutrients like amino acids present in the cheese. The protein content is high in cheese, but not the proteins cats require.
Cheese also contains high-fat amounts that can lead to obesity in your kitty if given too often.
Any animal or human eating dairy products needs sufficient amounts of the lactase enzyme present in their system to digest the lactose (or milk sugars). Without lactase, their liver can’t break down cow’s milk or goat’s milk, leaving them lactose intolerant.
Dogs and humans have large amounts of lactase in their digestive systems, but cats do not. The lactase in a cat’s body is almost non-existent, making digesting dairy products very difficult for them. If a cat eats a sizable amount of a dairy product, they can suffer from a terrible stomach upset, vomit, or have diarrhea.
What about kittens?
Who doesn’t get the feels when looking at images of a sweet little kitten drinking from a warm bowl of milk? We’ve been raised watching movies and videos of this scenario. And if cats can’t digest dairy, how is this possible?
Kittens are pretty amazing. When they are born, being mammals, they drink their mother’s milk. During the nursing period, kittens’ bodies manufacture lactase in amounts sufficient to digest the dairy makeup of their mom’s milk.
As they grow and become weaned, their bodies produce smaller and smaller amounts of lactase. So, by the time the kitten is weaned, they have the same low lactose amount as an adult cat, giving them lactose intolerance.
Cats and Cheese:
My cats love cheese and wander around my feet, meowing when I’m cooking with it. I know they don’t need it, or any human food. But I also know they have a very balanced diet, so giving them one small piece of cheese will not hurt them and, in fact, would make them and me happy. They get their “complementary piece of cheese” and I get to continue my cooking without tripping over two cats.
It’s not an amount that is going to be consequential. It’s kind of like us eating a cookie. We know there’s no nutritional value for us in the cookie, but we still like it. If we ate them as an exclusive diet, we would jeopardize our health in big ways. However, if we eat one occasionally, we won’t suffer any harmful effects.
It’s the same for cats and cheese. It’s not toxic to them, but it offers them no nutritional value. A steady diet of cheese would probably kill a cat, but the small occasional piece does no harm.
What types of cheese can cats eat?
All cheeses are not alike, and ingredients matter if you’re thinking about giving some to your cat. In this article, when we talk about cheese, we’re talking about basic cheese: made with cow’s or goat’s milk, and cheese cultures, salt, and enzymes as the only ingredients.
American or processed cheese is definitely not in this category since it contains many additives and high levels of salt.
Blue cheese is another no. The molds can cause digestive issues, especially if your cat is older or has health issues.
However, cheeses like hard cheddars, gouda, cream cheese, mozzarella, swiss, string cheese, feta, cottage cheese, and parmesan are acceptable cheeses. They also have less lactose, making them easier for your cat to digest. Goat cheese has the least amount of lactose, so is the safest for your kitty.
The salt added to cheese is important to keep in mind. Hard cheeses have more salt than soft cheese like mozzarella, cream cheese, and goat cheese. Too much salt in your cat’s system can cause problems like Salt toxicity or poisoning, which is very serious and needs veterinarian care. But, as stated earlier, a tiny amount of cheese offered to your cat (as long as it isn’t in the processed category) won’t pose a risk.
What about vegan or non-dairy cheeses?
Vegan cheeses don’t contain lactose, so they should be safe, right? Unfortunately, the answer is no. They are highly processed and contain high salt and fat content, making them unacceptable for cats to eat.
The long and short of cats and cheese:
Yes, your cat can eat cheese, but know how much is appropriate. Since cats are obligate carnivores, they don’t have the lactase enzyme necessary to digest milk or dairy products. Cheese is strictly an occasional treat. Only offer the natural cheeses, not any processed cheeses. Goat cheese is your best cheese offering.
Many cat parents use cheese to make giving pills easier. A cheddar or soft cheese can make the pill-giving process easier if you pay attention to the amount you offer.
Too much cheese and your furry friend could develop digestive issues like a tummy ache, diarrhea, or constipation.
Most pet stores offer cat treats and cat food with cheese as a minor ingredient. These are fine. The manufacturer has portioned the amount of cheese for you, making them safe for your cat.
There are also many recipes for cat treats with cheese on the internet. I found this one, Cheese treats for cats, for example, that seems simple enough even for my picky fur babies.
In conclusion, you can give your cat a small piece of cheese, but know which cheeses are the safest to keep your furry friend a purring, healthy friend.