The short answer is: Yes, but they shouldn’t eat too much.
You probably found this article because you own a cat, and one of two things is true; they got into butter you left out, or you’ve heard that butter helps cats cough up hairballs more easily. You might be worried about your furry friend being lactose intolerant if it’s the former.
Before we get into any details, we’d like to put your fears to rest. No, butter isn’t poisonous to cats, and your cat isn’t going to get sick or die if they ate the butter you left on the counter.
And no, they aren’t going to choke on a hairball if you don’t feed them butter. The problem with cats eating butter is the excessive calories, not lactose intolerance or hairballs.
Are Cats Lactose Intolerant?
You might have been told that cats love lapping from saucers of milk, or even seen a cat doing it. Cats love foods that are high in fat, which includes dairy products—that’s why your cat is so obsessed with eating butter. They especially enjoy fresh cow milk left sitting for a bit so the cream rises to the surface.
However, cats can’t be trusted to make their own nutritional choices. They’ll go after anything that tastes good. What your cat eats isn’t an indication of what’s good for them.
Case in point: many cats, even ones that love dairy, are lactose intolerant. Do you have a lactose-intolerant human friend who can’t stop eating cheese? Cats are like that.
Like humans, cats are born with the ability to digest the lactose in their mothers’ milk. But as they wean on a diet of solid food, most cats lose the enzymes that help them process lactose, meaning dairy passes through their systems undigested. That can lead to an unpleasant night for your feline, with an upset stomach, diarrhea, and vomiting.
That Sounds Awful! So, I Should Never Let My Cat Have Butter, Right?
Not so fast.
First of all, not all cats are lactose intolerant. Like with humans, it varies, and some kittens retain the ability to process lactose as they grow up. If your cat has ever eaten your yogurt and gotten through the day without any discomfort, chances are they’re one of the lucky ones.
Second, butter contains very little lactose. Raw milk has by far the highest lactose content of any dairy product. Other dairy foods, like cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and butter have been treated, cultured, and mixed with other ingredients until the lactose content is relatively low.
Chances are, even a lactose-intolerant kitty cat can eat a bit of butter or cheese without getting a rumbly tummy.
What a Relief! Does That Mean I Can Give My Cat as Much Butter as They Want?
Once again, not so fast. Butter is a human food. So are cheese, ice cream, yogurt, and milk. We’ve tinkered with the formulas and refined the processes for making all dairy products because humans want to eat them, not so we can feed them to our cats.
Cats have different nutritional needs than we do. They’re considered “true carnivores” that get most or all of their dietary needs met by consuming other animals and need a correspondingly high amount of protein (side note: this is why it’s so important for the first three ingredients of any cat food to be meat).
In the old days, a cat had to chase mice to get protein. Now, we have cat food formulated to provide all the nutrients they need. Much like how growing humans drink milk fortified with vitamin D, cats get more than just the basic meat ingredients when they eat cat food.
If you give your cat too much butter or too much of any human food, chances are they won’t have any appetite left for food that contains the nutrition they need. Cats can’t live on a diet of human food any more than you could live on nothing but cat food.
Another consideration about butter is that, like any other fatty product, it’s calorie-dense, so it doesn’t take much of it to pass your cat’s daily caloric allowance without providing the protein that they need.
But What About Hairballs? Isn’t Butter Important to Help Them Come Up Smoothly?
You might have heard that letting your cat drink a little melted butter will help lubricate their throat and make it easier to cough up hairballs. The jury is still out on whether this is true, but most of the time, it’s unnecessary.
Listening to your cat try to cough up a hairball is always upsetting. Just remind yourself that the occasional hairball is a natural part of a cat’s life and that 95% of the time, they’ll pass easily on their own.
If your cat is recurrently coughing hairballs, you should reconsider their diet. Change them to a moisture-rich fresh or wet diet with a higher fiber content. You should also keep up with the daily brushing, and keep a close eye on your cat’s behavior since stressed cats tend to overgroom.
OK, I Think I Understand. I Can Give My Cat a Little Butter, But Not Too Much or Too Often.
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Human food should be considered dessert for your cat. Tuna and butter are like cakes and sweets, while milk is like a sugary drink. We all enjoy a soda occasionally but drinking nothing but soda instead of water can cause long-term harm.
Your cat won’t die if they eat butter. They aren’t even guaranteed to barf on the carpet. If they haven’t had a treat in a while, it’s OK to let them snack on a bit. But it’s no substitute for cat food and clean water provided to them at regular, routine times.
If you’re still uncertain, it’s far easier to get a cat treat that’s designed for cats specifically.
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- Are Cats Lactose Intolerant?
- That Sounds Awful! So, I Should Never Let My Cat Have Butter, Right?
- What a Relief! Does That Mean I Can Give My Cat as Much Butter as They Want?
- But What About Hairballs? Isn’t Butter Important to Help Them Come Up Smoothly?
- OK, I Think I Understand. I Can Give My Cat a Little Butter, But Not Too Much or Too Often.