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Can Dogs Drink Milk or are Dogs Lactose Intolerant?

Updated on July 9, 2016

So Can Dogs Have Milk or is Milk Bad for Dogs?

Can dogs have milk? Are dogs lactose intolerant? To better understand whether they are or not, it's interesting learning more about the role of milk in a dog's life. We know that in humans, milk is important for babies. Indeed, there's no doubt about the fact that breast milk is the most optimal form of nutrition for babies in the neonatal and beginning of infant stage. However, humans continue consuming milk throughout their lives. According to Aaron E. Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, humans are the only mammals on the face of the earth consuming milk, even in great amounts, past childhood. So what happens in dogs? Let's take a look at the role milk plays when it comes to canines.

Mother's Special Milk

After an average of 63 days, an adorable batch of puppies is born. Despite being blind and deaf, the puppies are drawn to the warmth and smell of their mom, and within little time, they'll be crawling about and suckling with vigor. The first milk mother dogs produce in the initial hours post-whelping is known as colostrum, also known as "mother's gold," because of its typical yellow-gold hue. This special milk is rich in antibodies and allows the pups the opportunity to receive sufficient passive immunity to survive during those vulnerable early weeks of life. The antibodies are absorbed through the pup's porous stomach. Afterward, mother dog will produce regular milk up until the puppies are weaned.

In dogs, the weaning process coincides with when puppies start growing sharp teeth and begin to explore. Around 3 to 4 weeks of age, mother dog starts feeling those sharp teeth when she's nursing and may start resenting the whole breast feeding process. Her reluctance to nurse, paves the path to the weaning process, when puppies are gradually weaned off the supply of milk. Coincidentally, at this age, puppies are very interested in exploring their surroundings, which makes it an optimal time for the breeder to present soft foods. Often, ground kibble (usually the same brand mother dog is fed) is soaked in puppy milk replacer and warm water and blended until it assumes the consistency of mush is presented. Gradually, the water/milk is then reduced until the pups are on completely dry, solid foods and drinking water.

Puppy Weaning Time

A puppy is said to be weaned only once he no longer receives any breast milk. Puppies are generally weaned by the time they are 6 to 8 weeks old. Once weaned, puppies no longer need milk--and breast milk won't even ever be available for them again. Indeed, once a mother dog's mammary glands are no longer manipulated by the action of the pups suckling and her diet is adjusted, her milk production will gradually slow down and eventually halt.

So are Dogs Milk Intolerant or What?

So we now for a fact that puppies need their mother's milk to grow and thrive, so does this mean dogs can tolerate milk well? Well, yes and no. When feeding on mother's milk, puppies certainly seem healthy and happy; however, things may change as the puppies grow. Just as in humans, and other mammals, the puppies' ability to digest milk is lost as they grow. Let's take a closer look at the process.

Mother milk is rich in lactose, a disaccharide sugar deriving from galactose and glucose. To properly digest milk, the puppy's lining of the small intestine secretes a special enzyme known as "lactase." It is thanks to this special enzyme that lactose is split into its two simple sugars, galactose and glucose which are readily absorbed and digested. A puppy therefore begins life with the ability to digest lactose, but after being weaned, as the puppy matures, the production of lactase will gradually decrease. Because of this, when milk is consumed later on in life, it may cause digestive problems since lactose is no longer broken down. Affected dogs may therefore develop flatulence, pain, nausea and diarrhea in the hours following consumption.

However, there are countless dogs who still habitually consume milk into adulthood without ill effects, what gives? It appears that the same thing happens as well with humans; there are some humans who tolerate milk well into adulthood, while others cannot even ingest a sip and they are rushing to the closest restroom. So what makes some humans or dogs capable of digesting milk without problems beyond infancy? The term used to depict the continued activity of lactase in adulthood is "lactase persistence."

Lactose Intolerance in Humans

Let's take a look at the significance of this in humans. One would assume that the ability to digest milk may have been conditioned by the consumption of dairy products after infancy, but in humans that doesn't appear to be the case; rather, lactase persistence is thought to be genetically programmed. What advantage does lactase persistence provide since it seems to persist in certain individuals and this genetic predisposition has shown to be a dominant trait?

It looks like lactase persistence offered some evolutionary advantage to certain humans; in particular, to those populations where the domestication of milk-producing animals became a way of life. The consumption of milk offered the advantage of supplying food repeatedly, something quite relevant in an era of famine and starvation. Lactase persistence, therefore was something quite widespread in such populations.

On the other hand, populations that weren't involved in the domestication of milk-producing animals had little evolutionary advantage derived from developing lactase persistence. An example of this can be seen in certain Asian countries. For instance, in east Asia the consumption of milk was rare, and as such, Chinese have poor tolerance of milk; whereas, the nomads who lived near the borders in Mongolia, and frequently fed on mare milk, showed a widespread distribution of lactase persistence.

While the hunter-gatherers of the Neolothic Era were for the most part lactose intolerant, as the years went by and more and more populations began embracing agriculture and the domestication of milk-producing animals, lactase persistence became more common and widespread. Can something similar have happened to our four-legged companions? Could it be that certain types of dogs, such as shepherd dogs, be better able to digest milk compared to other dogs? We know for a fact that the shepherds of the Caucasian Mountains often fed their dogs kefir, a fermented dairy product obtained from goats and cows, as part of their daily diet. Also, with the advancement of agriculture and dairy farms, more and more farmers were offering dogs diets made of table scraps and that often included dairy. This makes us ponder if dogs also underwent something similar to humans; it seems like more studies are needed on this.

Back to Dogs

What we do know is that according to T. Sahi with the Dept. of Public Health, University of Helsinki, in 1903, dogs were found to have very low lactase activity and therefore when milk was ingested, the lactose remained unhydrolysed, causing diarrhea. This seems to suggest that dogs become lactose intolerant after being weaned. However, we must also consider that mother dog milk is quite different compared to cow milk. Cow milk contains about 4.5% to 5% lactose when nursing dog milk contains 3.1%. This is why orphaned puppies should not be given cow milk, but a commercial canine milk replacer specifically formulated for puppies.. According to the ASPCA, cow milk or other milk replacers not formulated for puppies can potentially cause diarrhea.

Whether your dog develops symptoms after consuming a milk-based product also depends on the amount and type of product consumed. For instance, a dog who is lactose intolerant may show no ill effects after consuming Swiss cheese because it contains a minimal amount of lactose (about 1 gram in one ounce); whereas, whole milk, on the other hand, contains a whopping 11 grams in one cup. Yogurt, kefir and cottage cheese are also better tolerated because the lactose is broken down during the fermentation process. Goat cheese may also be better tolerated compared to cow milk.

Himalayan treat made of yak and cow milk, salt and lime juice

Himalayan Dog Chew, Small
Himalayan Dog Chew, Small

Himalayan Dog Chews are made by boiling yak and cow milk and then dried for several weeks to create a hard chew. Dogs must work the end of the treat for hours, softening it with their mouths before small parts of it can be slowly scraped off. It is 100-percent natural with no preservatives. It is an authentic type of cheese eaten by the people of the Himalayas.

 

Giving Milk to Dog: Yay or Nay?

So is dairy good for dogs or should it be on the list of foods to ban once and for all? As in people, the answer is it depends. Of course, milk is not a poison, and as such, you won't find it on the list of foods that are toxic to dogs, but many websites list milk as a product to avoid giving to dogs. Why? Because of the before mentioned digestive upset, and the fact that some sensitive dogs may develop pancreatitis. According to veterinarian Dr. Melissa Brookshire, dogs can get a bout of pancreatitis if they have stolen some butter or cheese off the counter due to these products' high fat content.

According to Vet Info, milk is not an essential nutrient that must be part of a dog's diet; indeed, dogs can live and thrive without consuming dairy products. Yes, milk has calcium and several other nutrients, but dogs can get their healthy doses of calcium and nutrients from being fed a high quality premium diet as well. However, if your dog isn't intolerant to lactose and enjoys to lap up a little bit of milk or yogurt or low-fat cheese, a little bit given occasionally should do no harm. If your dog tolerates milk, Vet West Animal Hospital suggests playing it safe and giving it in small portions; however, at the first sign of diarrhea or vomiting, you should obviously stop providing milk and dairy treats and ask your pet healthcare team for advice. Also, if your dog is on any medication/s or suffers from certain health conditions, always ask your vet if milk or dairy may interfere with such medications and if dairy products may prove harmful to your dog's health.

My personal thought? Instead of worrying about what drinks you can add to Rover's diet, play it safe and stick to the classic -- water and water only. This offers a win-win situation: Rover stays hydrated and healthy and you have less things to worry about.

Disclaimer: this article is fruit of my research ad should not be used as a substitute for professional veterinary or nutritional advice.By reading this article you accept this disclaimer.

Alexadry© all rights reserved, do not copy.

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    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      3 years ago from USA

      Thanks Bob for the votes up. This whole history thing was new to me, it just popped up as I was researching the matter. I had never heard of lactase persistence until yesterday. There's always something new to learn!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image

      Bob Bamberg 

      3 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Really interesting hub, Adrienne! Prior to this, my education on the subject was limited to one sentence...once weaned, dogs lose the enzyme lactase and become lactose intolerant.

      It was interesting exploring the history, especially lactase persistence. We humans, being wicked smaht, invented cheese, butter and the all important whipped cream. Had dogs been able to do that, they, too, would likely now benefit from lactase persistence. Voted up, useful and interesting.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      3 years ago from USA

      It started as a hub on dogs, but then there were too many interesting things I learned about that it was a shame to leave them out. Thanks for the votes up!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      3 years ago from New York

      This was so well done alexadry. Your comparisons to humans, the history and regional habits all make for a very comprehensive and interesting hub. My dog can and will eat anything with no apparent side effects though I have been watching his wheat intake due to summer time rashes.

      I've bought the Yak milk treats and he loves them.

      Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

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