Google search trends will tell you that pet owners aren’t sure whether to feed their cats and dogs a lot of things.[i] The reason for that is dogs, cats, and other animals metabolize foods differently than humans. So not everything that we love to eat is something they should eat, even if they seem to like it, too.
“Can they eat that?” is a common question in my household, as it surely is in many others. My own cheese hounds are avid explorers of all things people food, and they are sometimes adamant about helping us sample the things that smell really, really good.
There are some toxic-to-dogs foods that are common knowledge: grapes, chocolate, coffee. According to the ASPCA, scientists don’t fully understand why grapes are toxic to dogs.[ii] But chocolate and coffee are thought to be vasodilators: stimulant foods that widen blood vessels and lead to lower blood pressure.[iii] This is dangerous in dogs, cats, and other small animals, because a normal, human-sized amount of chocolate or coffee can be too much for their little bodies and can lead to anaphylaxis or septic shock.[iv]
But what about cheese?
If you read the articles about foods pet owners should avoid giving their animals, “milk and dairy” is frequently listed. According to the ASPCA’s list, “Because pets do not possess significant amounts of lactase (the enzyme that breaks down lactose in milk), milk and other dairy-based products cause them diarrhea or other digestive upset.”[v]
But the cheesemaking process basically transforms milk into a different food. A great many cheeses are low in lactose or are virtually lactose-free, and can happily be enjoyed by anyone who is truly lactose intolerant—as opposed to those with casein allergies or other intolerances that prevent them from having a good time digesting cheese.[vi]
All milk is mostly water and milk sugar, or lactose.[vii] During cheesemaking, bacterial starter cultures eat up much of the lactose and turn it into lactic acid. When the whey is drained from the curds, the rest of the lactose goes with it. As Pat Polowsky explains in the Cheese Science Toolkit, “within a few months [of aging cheese] practically no lactose remains.”[viii]
Polowsky stresses that the cheeses most naturally low in lactose are going to be “aged, cultured, non-‘fresh’ cheeses” such as aged cheddars, goudas, parmesan-style cheeses, and more.[ix]
This is good news for humans, and it is good news for cheese-loving animals, too.
That said, our pets are generally smaller than us, so the amount of cheese they should be noshing on is much less than what we should be eating. The American Kennel Club stresses that dogs can eat cheese in “small to moderate quantities,” and adds that lactose intolerance in dogs is “rare, but still possible.”[x] The same seems to be true for cats and other small animals, as well.
The AKC recommends giving dogs lower-fat cheeses such as cottage cheese or mozzarella as treat. Of course, fresh Mozzarella may have more residual lactose in it than cottage cheese, which is traditionally a cultured dairy product. In general, Swiss or Alpine-style cheeses tend to be lower in fat. Try giving your pet a little nibble of cheese and see how he or she handles it before deciding to make cheese a regular part of their treat repertoire.
Of course, there are always dog treats that are made with cheese, Himalayan yak’s milk chews, and ice cream made specifically for pets. You don’t have to give your pet your cheese—especially if you don’t want to share.
If you do want to share your cheese snacks with your pet, be careful not to give them cheeses that are washed with chocolate, coffee, or grape must. As for charcuterie, give things like salami, prosciutto, pâté, and rillettes to your pet in careful moderation. Dogs and cats get down with meat, but these fattier meats are not so good for them.
And if you aren’t sure whether or not a food is safe for your pet, try calling your veterinarian or your local poison control center. The Humane Society has a list of dangerous foods that you can use as a starting point, but it may not include everything.
*This post is dedicated to the memory of my OG cheese hound, Bijou, a very good girl, who has gone on to eat her way through the cheese board in the sky.
[i] During the past 12 months, five of the top 25 search trends on Google are related to whether or not dogs can eat milk, spinach, blueberries, strawberries, and avocado. “Dogs.” Google Trends. Google. n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?q=dogs
[ii] “People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pets.” Animal Poison Control. ASPCA.org. n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/animal-poison-control/people-foods-avoid-feeding-your-pets#:~:text=Although%20the%20toxic%20substance%20within,grapes%20and%20raisins%20to%20dogs.&text=Macadamia%20nuts%20can%20cause%20weakness,tremors%20and%20hyperthermia%20in%20dogs.
[iii] See, for example: Noguchi, Katsuhiko, et. Al. “Effect of caffeine contained in a cup of coffee on microvascular function in healthy subjects.” Journal of Pharmacological Sciences 127.2 (2015): 217-22. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1347861315000067; Flammer, Andreas J., et. Al. “Dark chocolate improves coronary vasomotion and reduces platelet reactivity.” Circulation 116.21 (2007): 2376-82. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.107.713867
[iv] Ramanlal, Riddhi, and Vikas Gupta. “Physiology, Vasodilation.” StatPearls Publishing. 21 May 2020. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK557562/
[v] “People Foods to Avoid Feeding Your Pets.”
[vi] Kubick, Erika. “How to Eat Cheese When You’re Lactose Intolerant.” Cheese Sex Death. n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.cheesesexdeath.com/blog/lactose-intolerance
[vii] Polowsky, Pat. “Lactose and Lactic Acid.” Cheese Science Toolkit. Cheesescience.org. n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.cheesescience.org/lactose.html
[x] “Human Foods Dogs Can and Can’t Eat.” American Kennel Club. AKC.org 24 April 2020. Web. 11 Feb. 2021. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/human-foods-dogs-can-and-cant-eat/