If you are like me and an estimated 30 to 50 million Americans, you may be lactose intolerant and unable to drink milk. Did you know that dogs can be lactose intolerant as well? In the following article we will discuss what lactose is, why some animals are lactose intolerant, allergy to dairy, the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance, and treatments for lactose intolerance.
What is lactose?
Before we get into why dogs are lactose intolerant and the symptoms of it, we need to go over what exactly is lactose and where all it can be found. Lactose is the primary sugar found in mammalian milk. Lactose is broken down in the digestive system by an enzyme called lactase. Lactose is found in many foods, especially those that have milk products in them. If you are feeding your dog any processed foods, it is always important to read the labels before offering anything to your dog.
A surprising fact that I learned when researching for this article is that most white-coated pill form medications contain lactose as a filler agent. Lactose has excellent compressibility properties, which make it great for forming tablets. Lactose may be listed as lactose hydrous, lactose anhydrous, lactose monohydrate, or lactose spray-dried.
What is lactose intolerance?
When dogs are puppies, their digestive systems produce the lactase enzyme to break down and digest the lactose sugars in their mother’s milk. But like most other mammals, once weaned off their mother’s milk, their bodies stop the production of the lactase enzyme. As a result, your dog may experience gastrointestinal upset and the accompanying symptoms after being fed dairy products.
When digested properly, lactase breaks down the lactose sugars into simpler sugars, glucose and galactose, in the upper digestive systems and then it is absorbed into the body. When there isn’t enough lactase enzyme in the digestive system, the lactose sugars makes it further into the digestive system where it then combines with bacteria and ferments. This fermenting is what causes the signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance. For more on the canine digestive system see our article, Importance of Dog Digestive Health.
Signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance:
Toileting accidents in the house
Abdominal pain and bloating
Vomiting or diarrhea
Can dogs consume dairy products?
Cow’s milk should never be given to your dog, no matter what the age or lactose intolerance levels. Cow’s milk contains about 5% lactose and is very difficult to digest, even for puppies that are producing the lactase enzymes. Both full fat and fat-free milks contain the same levels of lactose sugar concentrations.
Milk-based butters contain extremely low levels of lactose sugars, around 0.8% to 1%. This makes butters easier to digest, but because of the fat and salt contents, butters should still be avoided.
Cheeses have varying amounts of lactose sugars depending on the type and cheese-making methods used to make the cheeses. For example, American and Colby cheeses have nearly no reduction in lactose sugar levels. Cheeses like Muenster and Limburger cheeses have less than 1% lactose. These lower levels are due to the lactose sugars being fermented into lactic acid by bacteria.
Ice creams can either have lower or higher levels of lactose sugars, depending on the production process. Ice creams should also not be given to dogs due to the high amounts of sugars and fats. Ice creams also can contain other harmful additives, like chocolates. For more information on the dangers of chocolate see our article, Bittersweet Truth of Chocolate for Dogs.
Yogurts, plain with no additives, are debated. The process of turning milk into yogurt does not reduce the lactose sugar levels, but it produces its own bacteria and enzymes that help digestive systems break down lactose sugars. If you are feeding your dog yogurt, it is important to only ever feed plain, no additives or sweeteners, yogurts. Many yogurts contain high levels of sugars to make the yogurts more pleasant to humans.
Whipped cream is in the same vein as ice cream. The process of making whipping cream does not decrease the levels of lactose sugars. Also, as with ice cream, additional sugars are added to increase the sweetness of the whipped cream to make it make appetizing to humans. With the combination of added sugars and the high fat contents of whipped cream, it is recommended to only give it to a dog in small amounts on special occasions. We have heard customers topping their dog’s food with whipped cream for their birthdays as a little treat.
What is an allergy to dairy?
Lactose intolerance in dogs is caused by the lack of lactase enzymes to break down lactose sugars. Dogs can also have a dairy allergy, which is where the dog has intolerance to a protein in milks. Many of the symptoms of dairy allergies mimic those of lactose intolerance, but also include the following:
Redness of the skin
Swelling of the face
It is important to know the difference between the symptoms of a dairy allergy and lactose intolerance because dairy allergies can be more severe and potentially life threating if the dog’s dairy allergy is severe enough. If your dog does have a dairy allergy, giving them dairy in the future can lead to increasingly more severe allergic reactions. Consult your veterinarian if you suspect any potential allergies.
Canine Lactose Intolerance Treatment and Alternatives:
The signs and symptoms of lactose intolerance will go away on their own after the lactose sugars completely move through the dog’s digestive system. To prevent future reactions to lactose sugars, remove all milk products from your dog’s diet. A dog’s diet does not require any dairy products; therefore, can be completely removed without any dietary deficiencies.
If you wanted to keep milk or milk alternative products in a dog’s diet, merely as an occasional treat, there are a few options. Lactose-free milk can be used. Lactose-free milks, like Fairlife and Lactaid, is regular cow’s milk that goes through a process that breaks the lactose sugars down, or filtered out altogether in some cases.
Soy milk products are generally safe for dogs in smaller amounts but in larger amounts can increase estrogen-like activity and lower the dog’s thyroid levels.
Almond milk products are another alternative that are more easily digestible for dogs. Unfortunately, almond milk is also high in fat contents, which can cause gastrointestinal distress and other health issues in dogs. Almond milks also often contain carrageenan, which studies have shown to cause digestive issues.
With all manufactured products, it is important to check the list of ingredients for additives that are harmful to your dog. Carefully read the list of ingredients to check for dangerous additives like artificial sweeteners and ingredients like raisins, cocoa, and xylitol. All of these additives are can be deadly to dogs. For more information on food additives, please read Festive Foods Your Dog Should Not Eat.
With dogs not having a dietary need for dairy products, it is best practice to avoid them completely. We also understand the desire to give your dog an occasional dairy treat. If you choose to do so, offer it in smaller qualities and monitor for intolerances and allergic reactions to those products. As always, carefully read the list of ingredients for additives that could be harmful to your dog.
We hope you found this article informative and help you enhance your dog parenting knowledge.
Thank you for reading!
Michael Cassatt, LCS Director of Marketing
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