If you follow homemade dog food recipes here on Top Dog Tips, it's likely you've seen some of those to recommend dairy products in the ingredients list. But aren't dairy products bad for dogs, and aren't dogs lactose intolerant? No, and no. I was asked to look at some of the evidence and write this article on why using dairy products in homemade dog food recipes is fine (depending on your dog).
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Why Is Dairy Controversial?
Many dairy products – milk, cheese and yogurt in particular – are not favored by dog owners. These foods are not in themselves toxic to dogs, but they can pose some minor stomach and GI issues for certain dogs.
What makes a dog sensitive to dairy is lactose, a sugar-compound in dairy products. For any mammal to digest lactose, it must be broken apart in the body into it's two basic sugar components by an enzyme called lactase.
In large doses (or small doses to a very intolerant dog), some diary products can upset a dog's GI system with symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, and vomiting. This is true, and has been observed in studies (1). But it was also observed that beef, wheat, mutton, egg, pork, herring, cod, maize, rabbit, dog biscuits, kidney bean, turkey and other ingredients can cause the same issues as dairy products in certain dogs.
Some dogs are simply allergic to certain ingredients, including dairy products. It's likely they're less tolerant of dairy products than of meat products, but not all dogs are always 100% intolerant of dairy products.
The “Dog and Lactase” Myth
Here's where the proposed issue of “dairy vs dogs” comes from.
Many resources out there suggest that all dogs lack this enzyme called lactase in their body and, therefore, this renders them lactose-intolerant by nature. This is NOT true, despite the popular belief and the numerous websites preaching this myth.
Let's look at some evidence, shall we?
First, dogs cannot be completely lactose-intolerant, because mother dog's milk contains lactose (4, 5). In fact, a 2001 study found that lactose increases in mother dog's milk the closer she gets to delivery, from concentration levels of 16.6 g/L on the first day of pregnancy, to levels of 34.0 – 40.2 g/L on pregnancy days 7 – 42.
A 2002 study showed that dogs do in fact have lactase. It also demonstrated that while lactose intolerance may increase with age in dogs, it does not appear to be a problem for most canines and they're still able to tolerate dairy. Puppies in particular are better with milk products.
In some countries, like Sri Lanka for example, feeding milk to dogs is extremely common (about half of dogs will consume milk daily as a separate meal). In a 2016 survey, scientists questioned dog owners on their feeding practices, and found that 49% of dogs were regularly fed milk, with no side effects.
Finally, a 2010 study has shown activities of lactase, maltase and sucrase in the intestine of dogs, which provides them with the ability to hydrolyze disaccharades. The study also concluded that dogs, unlike cats, do in fact express lactase well enough and can consume milk in adulthood.
The bottom line? Just like with other foods and ingredients (beef, chicken, wheat, corn and whatnot), some dogs will tolerate dairy products and others won't. Some may be allergic to this food, and others won't be. Some are lactose intolerant, and others aren't.
So How Much is Too Much?
If your dog is lactose intolerant (showing symptoms of gas, diarrhea and stomach upset), you should not feed them dairy products or add dairy ingredients in homemade food as that will always result in adverse effects.
That said, not all dairy products are created equally and some products contain much more lactose or much less lactose than others.
- Whole Milk (1 cup) – 11 grams of lactose
- Skim Milk (1 cup) – 11 grams of lactose
- Vanilla Ice Cream (½ cup) – 6 grams of lactose
- Low Fat Yogurt (1 cup) – 5 grams of lactose
- Sour Cream (½ cup) – 4 grams of lactose
- Cottage Cheese (½ cup) – 4 grams of lactose
- American Cheese (1 oz) – 1 gram of lactose
- Swiss Cheese (1 oz) – 1 gram of lactose
- Cheddar Cheese (1 oz) – 0 lactose
Note: A dog's daily intake of dairy products should not exceed 10% of their calories.
When it comes to using dairy in homemade dog food meals, none of the recipes of mine, or those developed by holistic veterinarians, contain large amounts of dairy.
Small doses of dairy are likely to be safe for healthy (non-lactose-intolerant) dogs and will allow you to reap some of the health benefits dairy can provide to your pet. However, be mindful when you are supplementing your dog's daily food intake with dairy treats – be sure to use those from the lower-lactose side of the dairy spectrum.
Be Mindful of Existing Health Conditions
Just like with any recipe, or ingredient, or drug, or even commercial kibble, observe your pet for any signs of sensitivities when feeding dairy products, or adding dairy products into your homemade dog food meals.
In some cases this may be more dangerous than in others, such as:
- Lactose Intolerance – dogs that are known to be lactose intolerant should not be given any milk products.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease – the dog’s stomach/intestines become infected with an abnormally high number of inflammatory cells which inhibits the proper absorption and passage of food, and dairy products can aggravate this further.
- Colitis – an inflammation of the colon.
- Gastritis – an inflammation of the stomach.
Consult with a holistic veterinarian before you begin feeding dairy to your dog, as well as before switching to a homemade dog food diet plan. When using dairy products in homemade dog food recipes, start with small amounts to avoid stomach upset. Better yet, give the dog a small piece of dairy ingredient separately to make sure they're fine with it.
Potential Benefits of Dairy for Dogs
Although huge doses of dairy may not be healthy for dogs, the occasional cube of cheese, a lick of yogurt or a spoonful of cottage cheese shouldn’t have any adverse effects. Raw milk is also recommended over those that have been heavily pasteurized.
Cheese is lower in lactose and can provide your pooch with a boost of protein that's different to meat-based protein (thus containing different nutrients). It's also full of calcium, vitamin A, essential fatty acids, and B-complex vitamins. Small bits of cheese can be used as a part of rewards for training, and also to hide pills in.
Yogurt (plain and low fat) can be a healthy additive to your dog’s meal. This food is packed full of good enzymes that help aid digestion, provide a bit of protein and probiotics, as well as may help keep your dog full longer.
Cottage cheese is high in protein and micronutrients. It can be added to your dog’s kibble for both texture and flavor, or used to help soothe your pet’s upset tummy. Be sure to only feed the plain low-fat, no-sugar varieties and those that contain Lactobacillus acidophilus – a common live bacteria probiotic strain sometimes found in cottage cheese which may, in theory, help a sick dog.
Raw milk (goat or cow) is a form of milk in its purest, before the nutrients and good bacteria have been “cooked” out of it through pasteurization. Dogs can benefit from raw milk because it helps support digestion, may help increase a picky eater’s appetite and may aid some dogs with allergies by controlling the itching, shedding, and flaky skin.
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