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. If it’s the former, you might be worried about your furry friend being lactose intolerant.
Before we get into any details at all, 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 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 worst risk with cats and butter has to do with malnutrition, 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 lots of dairy products—that’s why your cat is so obsessed with eating butter. They especially enjoy fresh cow milk that has been 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, even store-bought milk, which doesn’t have anywhere near the nutritional content of fresh cow milk. What your cat eats isn’t an indication of what’s good for it.
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, the majority of 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 gotten into your yogurt and gotten through the day without any discomfort, chances are they’re one of the lucky ones.
Second, butter actually 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 actual 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 and a stinky litter box.
What a relief! Does that mean I can give my cat as much butter as she wants?
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 these dairy products because we 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,” getting 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 all that protein. Now, we have cat food that’s formulated to get them all the nutrients they need. Much like how growing humans drink milk fortified with vitamin D, cats are getting 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, they won’t have any appetite left for food that contains the nutrition cats need. Cats can’t live on a diet of human food any more than you could live on nothing but cat food.
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—it sounds so much like they’re choking. Just remind yourself that hairballs are a natural part of a cat’s life, and that 95% of the time, they’ll pass easily on their own.
Think about it this way: big cats in the jungle clean themselves with their tongues. They hack up hairballs too, and they don’t have any humans around to feed them melted butter. If your cat has serious problems with hairballs obstructing their breathing, we recommend taking them to a vet as soon as possible, rather than trying a home remedy.
OK, I think I understand. I can give my cat a little butter, but not too much or too often.
Yeah, you’ve got it!
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 once in a while, but drinking nothing but soda instead of water can cause major 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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- We also recently looked at if cats can eat mint. You can find that post here!
- Are cats lactose intolerant?
- But what about hairballs? Isn’t butter important to help them come up smoothly?