We’ll be completely honest here and hope that you make the right decision afterward: Yes, your cat may be able to eat cheese comfortably, but no cat should. Unlike chocolate and other foods that are toxic to kitties, a single snack of cheese will not force Whiskers to visit the vet (or worse) so don’t panic if you caught him swiping a slice of manchego from the charcuterie board or dashing up the cat tree with an absconded bit of brie. But there’s no valid reason a cat should be voluntarily given cheese. Some effects may be immediate and others are long-term considerations, but all are negative, so just cut the cheese from your cat’s diet completely to be safe.
But cats love milk . . . what’s the difference?
Let’s start from the top with this one. Whether or not cats love milk is hard to determine concretely. What we do know for sure is that kittens are fed on their mother’s milk for the first weeks of their lives and, not to bring dogs into the equation, but seem to develop a Pavlovian response to milk that lasts the rest of their lives. This doesn’t necessarily mean they love it, or even enjoy the taste—in fact, cats can’t detect sweetness and many cats won’t finish even a small saucer of milk—but they’re conditioned to react positively when they come across it. Because many humans believe cats love milk, too, some offer it to their cats as a treat and tend to behave affectionately when doing so, further associating milk with nurturing and caregiving. Cats who receive this attention tend to become particularly vocal or affectionate whenever milk is present, falsely confirming to their owners that they are obsessed with milk. It’s a silly cycle that you’ll never be able to explain to your cat, but you can cut your side of the shenanigans now that you understand.
Okay, but they still enjoy the experience. Isn’t that enough?
It would be if milk weren’t bad for them, but it is. The vast majority of adult cats are lactose intolerant, lacking the enzyme needed to properly digest milk. After weaning, most cats lose this ability because they’d never encounter milk again naturally, but they don’t lose the emotional or behavioral associations they have with it, so they exhibit the behaviors we interpret as obsession. Even the most sensible cat will still attempt to drink milk despite what happens next, and for the lactose intolerant majority, that’s often vomiting or diarrhea, and we can assume this comes with digestive pains similar to those that lactose-intolerant humans experience, too. Bottom line: Milk is bad news for most adult cats, and cheese is similarly problematic.
But not all cheeses are bad for the lactose intolerant!
This is true, and very good news for humans who are lactose intolerant, but it’s not helpful to cats, even the lucky few who never develop this condition (and it’s certainly true that plenty of adult cats are not lactose intolerant, but it’s not fun to find out who is and who isn’t!). While these “friendlier” cheeses may not trigger the vomiting or diarrhea that comes with lactose intolerance, they’re still packed with disproportionate levels of fat and salt, both of which can cause serious health problems for kitties over time. Obesity is a crisis for cats, bringing a host of diseases and significantly decreasing life expectancy, and the amount of fat in cheese can bring on this condition with alarming speed. Cats are naturally athletic creatures with bodies designed to be sleek and somewhat muscular so it’s especially dangerous for them to pack on pounds that prevent them from playing and exercising properly (we know, we know—it seems like they just sleep all the time anyway, but we promise that’s not the case).
Fine, but my cat is not lactose intolerant. What about special occasions?
It’s important to remember that a cat is a very small creature (even the big boys), so any unnecessary amount of potentially dangerous content, like unhealthy fats and sodium, has a greater impact on their tiny systems than it does on ours. While you might have an extra piece of cake on your birthday or a few more glasses of champagne on New Year’s Eve, a “special occasion” for your cat should not be including cheese, milk, or anything else that can affect her little body. It’s important to remember that you are the one tying something emotional to this holiday, birthday, or Friday night, not your cat. She will never suffer the feeling that she’s been robbed of a celebration because she didn’t get a piece of cheese on Valentine’s Day! And if you really can’t move past the idea that deserves something special on a given day (and we get it—we love to spoil them, too), then understand this: A treat is a treat. Lady Fluffington is no more excited for a chunk of cheddar than she is for a few traditional cats treats from the pouch. What she wants is food (any enjoyable food) and attention from you, so put down the parm and pick up the pet treats. It’s the same level of celebration in her eyes.
A further note on human foods
There are plenty of other foods that are unsafe for cats; so, while you’re making the wise decision to educate yourself on the topic of feeding human foods to your furriest family members, check out this larger list of foods your kitty shouldn’t eat. In general, human food isn’t ideal for cats at all and should never be used as a regular substitute for cat food, but the occasional special meal or random treat is fine, provided it doesn’t appear on that list of no-nos. If you do want to prepare a fun feast for your furball, you can play it safe by whipping up something simple from Cooking for Two: Your Cat & You, with recipes, specifically formulated for cat safety.