Cats can have some very odd eating habits. One of the commonest is to beg for — and sometimes steal — food intended for human. This is sometimes a problem because what’s edible for us may actually be very bad for cats. I’ve known cats who go wild for foods like yeast pate, cheese, melon and even frozen peas. It’s fine to give your cat the occasional treat but I avoid feeding my cats from my plate. It’s better to set a clear boundary between food for cats and “people food”, including ice cream.
Can cats eat ice cream? No. While the occasional lick won’t harm them, ice cream is very unhealthy for cats. It contains no nutrients they actually need and many things that are very unhealthy. Your cat will probably be fine if she consumes a lick or two but if she eats a lot of ice cream you should get her checked out by your vet.
You’ve arrived on this page because you have questions about safe treats for your cat.
- Can cats safely consume ice cream?
- Is ice cream bad for cats?
- Is there such a thing as a cat ice cream brain freeze?
- Are cats lactose intolerant?
- Is vanilla ice cream safer than chocolate?
- Why does my cat like “people food” so much?
- Can cats eat dairy-free ice cream?
- Should a cat who eats ice cream see a vet?
- Why does my cat like ice cream?
- Why does my cat like sweets?
Read on to find out more about all these questions.
Vanilla? Chocolate? Can cats eat ice cream at all?
You should never let your cat eat ice cream. It’s extremely unhealthy for them and may even be dangerous. Cats absolutely do not require anything found in ice cream — it has nothing of nutritional value that can’t be found in greater abundance elsewhere. There are a number of reasons why a cat might want to steal ice cream but you should refrain from letting her have any.
First of all, most ice creams are a dairy product. As we’ll discuss later in the article, adult cats are lactose intolerant and should not have dairy. Next, ice cream is stacked with carbohydrates in the form of sugar and other sweet ingredients. Cats do not need and should not have processed carbohydrates. They’re obligate carnivores, adapted for a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet; carbs tend to make them fat and can contribute to other health issues. Ice cream is also bad for your cat’s teeth and can cause tooth decay just as it does in humans.
There may also be other ingredients in ice cream that are very bad for cats. Some frozen desserts are made with alcohol, something that no cat should ever be allowed to drink. Even though the amounts are small, your cat’s tiny body cannot tolerate even these quantities of alcohol and they could make her very sick. More commonly, ice cream and similar desserts contain artificial sweeteners such as xylitol. These sweeteners are extremely toxic to some animals. In cats, it can cause severe sickness and even death. There are many ingredients in human food that can be harmful to cats but xylitol is particularly nasty. It initially affects the animal by causing a rush of insulin to her system, which leads to dangerously low blood sugar. Symptoms start with lethargy, disorientation, poor coordination and dizziness. The cat may stumble, lose her footing and even collapse. If she’s consumed a lot of xylitol, she may fall into a coma. At best, xylitol consumption can make your cat very sickly and miserable until the toxin is out of her system. At worst, it can cause death through liver failure.
Other ingredients that you might find in ice cream that may be harmful to cats include grapes and raisins, coconut flesh or coconut oil, chocolate, coffee and caffeine. Salty flavours such as salted caramel may contain dangerous amounts of salt. Ice cream may also contain tree nuts which can deliver a lot of oils and fats; too much fat may cause stomach upsets in cats and is generally unhealthy for them.
Chocolate ice cream is particularly bad for cats. Chocolate contains methylxanthines, compounds that we can break down and metabolise but which pets can’t. According to the website for the ASPCA: “When ingested by pets, methylxanthines can cause vomiting and [diarrhoea], panting, excessive thirst and urination, hyperactivity, abnormal heart rhythm, tremors, seizures and even death.”
Although the amount of chocolate in ice cream may be relatively small, it can still contribute enough methylxanthines to cause illness in your pet. Even if the effects aren’t serious, the animal is still suffering needlessly. It’s very unpleasant to be anxious, thirsty, nauseous and shaky when you’re a human being; for a cat, who can’t understand what’s happening, it’s far more terrifying. Note that some types of chocolate ice cream may be especially dangerous. White or mild milk chocolate flavours are not much more dangerous than plain vanilla ice cream (although you should still avoid letting your cats eat them). Dark chocolate ice cream is particularly dangerous.
If your cat gets more than a lick or two of ice cream, keep an eye on her. If she shows any unusual symptoms, particularly nausea or neurological issues, consult your vet.
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Are cats lactose intolerant?
Lactose is a form of sugar found in milk. As kittens, cats have an enzyme in their digestive systems that allows them to process lactose. This enzyme, lactase, breaks down the sugar and allows the kitten’s body to turn it into glucose. As they get older, however, cats don’t need this enzyme anymore. Their systems stop producing it and by the time they’re a few months old it has usually gone completely. Some cats remain able to tolerate lactose in small quantities. The norm, though, is lactose intolerance.
We’ve all seen those romantic images of kittens and cats enjoying a nice saucer of milk by the fire. In fact, giving your cat milk or dairy products like ice cream is a bad idea. Their lactose intolerance means that even a little milk or cream can cause problems.
For most cats, the results of consuming lactose are little more than a nuisance. They may experience abdominal discomfort and become irritable and fussy. They may cry a lot and not want to engage in their usual activities. Some cats may become nauseous and vomit. They may also experience bouts of diarrhoea. All of this is unpleasant for the cat (and for the human who has to clean up after her) but it’s not terrible and will generally pass fairly quickly.
More serious problems can arise if the cat eats a lot of some food containing lactose. In this situation, cats can develop very severe vomiting and diarrhoea which may lead to dehydration. Things can also get more serious if your cat is in poor health, is underweight or is a senior kitty; these pets are more vulnerable to stomach upsets and are hit harder by dehydration. In the worst cases, the loss of fluid might be severe enough to kill the animal.
Some dairy products are lower in lactose than others. While it’s true that ice cream may have less lactose than pure cream, it is still a lactose-containing food and poses a risk. There are other dairy products that may be safely given to most cats in very small quantities. Plain yoghurt and unprocessed hard cheese may have little or no lactose, as it is consumed by the bacteria involved in the food’s production. I admit to giving some of my own cats a very occasional dollop of yoghurt or sliver of hard cheese as a special treat. This is a much safer option than ice cream.
Why does my cat like ice cream and sweets?
Why does my cat like sweets? This is a very good question. Why would an obligate carnivore, one with no receptors for sweet flavours, want to eat sweet foods? Why would an animal with no ability to process lactose insist on trying to put her furry face in your dish of ice cream?
One answer is simply that cats want to eat the food they see you eating. Contrary to popular stereotypes of the cold and aloof feline, cats are in fact fairly social animals. In the wild, they tend to live in loose colonies where a number of cats engage in communal hunting, kitten-rearing and general interaction. If another colony member has found and is consuming some sort of food, it’s quite reasonable to assume that this food is both safe to eat and tasty. That works well in the wild, where the colony-mate is a fellow cat. In a domestic setting, the colony-mate may be a large omnivorous primate, with the ability to eat a number of foods that would sicken and kill a cat. When your cat sees you eating something, she can’t know that it might be noxious or even fatal to her. If it was bad, why would you eat it?
Another reason a cat might seek out sweets, in particular, ice cream, is that there’s some constituent that they need. In the case of ice cream, this might be fluid. Cats evolved to get most of their hydration from their food and don’t always drink enough from their water dishes to maintain a healthy level of hydration. Ice cream is largely made up of liquid; it will also be cool and pleasant to consume for that reason. Providing plenty of cool, clean water — in her dish, from a gently running tap or from a pet drinking fountain — may be an acceptable alternative.
Cats also seem to enjoy particular textures. Some like crunchy foods such as cucumber or melon, while others enjoy soft, mushy textures more. It may be that ice cream provides a physical sensation that your cat craves.
For some cats, the flavour might be the reason she wants sweets or ice cream. While your cat can’t taste sweet things, she may be able to detect other flavours. Some foods, particularly fruits, contain volatile compounds that seem especially appealing to some cats. One of my boys loves strawberries, despite the fact that they have almost no nutritional value whatsoever. Cats very commonly get excited about cantaloupe melon, which again has zero nourishment. (You can safely give cantaloupe as a regular treat since it’s non-toxic and provides a nice hydration boost).
Can cats eat dairy-free ice cream?
You really shouldn’t let cats eat any kind of ice cream, even the dairy-free sorts. Dairy-free ice cream may not contain lactose but it still contains things your cat should not have. In place of milk fat, dairy-free iced desserts contain other fats instead which may be bad for your cat. These kinds of desserts are usually made with various types of vegetable fat, which your cat’s digestive system really has no use for. Coconut oils, a popular substitute for dairy, seem particularly bad for my cats’ stomachs; that said, no vegetable oil is very helpful for your cat. They provide only empty calories and can cause tummy upsets. I’ve also seen cats respond very badly to almost milk and other nut kinds of milk, which are often used as the base for dairy-free ice cream.
It’s true that some non-dairy ice cream is also fat-free. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that they’re good for your cat to eat. Fat replacers such as gums or supplemental fibre are not good for your cat either, provoking stomach upsets and gastric discomfort. One popular fat replacer, guar gum, has been shown to be especially bad for cats as it blocks the digestion of protein. That’s not healthy for anyone but for a cat, it’s a major problem.
Aside from the lactose issue, non-dairy ice cream may contain all the other ingredients that are bad for your cat. We’ve already mentioned constituents such as sugars, sweeteners such as xylitol, chocolate and so on. These will harm your cat just as readily in non-dairy ice cream as in conventional ice cream. If anything, I would say that dairy-free ice cream is likely to be more risky for cats than less risky. Some of the novel ingredients that are used to duplicate the taste and mouthfeel of regular ice cream are proven to be a health hazard for cats; some have barely been tested at all. On the whole, I would very strongly recommend that cats not eat dairy-free ice cream.
Ice cream for cats
While you shouldn’t give your cat human ice cream, there are various alternatives you can offer a cat who is fussing for ice cream. On hot days, kitty “ice cream” can be a valuable aid for helping your furry companion beat the heat and stay properly hydrated.
The simplest iced treat is an ice cube or crushed ice. If your cat begs for frozen desserts, you could try leaving some ice in her bowl for her to lick. She may just want the cooling sensation that ice provides or the crunchy texture of ice chips.
You might also find that your cat begs less for ice cream if you chill or freeze her wet food. Some people go so far as to put cat food into ice-pop moulds and giving this to their cats. Personally I don’t go quite that far. My own variant on kitty ice cream is simply to pop some of my cats’ wet food pouches into the freezer for a couple of hours before I serve them so that the food is partially frozen. Sometimes I mash in a little ice water with their regular food, too. Freezing food creates an interesting texture as well as helping my cats to cool down when the thermometer goes up.
You can also make ice cream for cats by freezing cat milk (not ordinary milk or kitten milk) into cubes or ice-pops. This is safe for cats and seems to be very well received.
Cat ice cream brain freeze
The phenomenon of ice cream headache, or “brain freeze“, is a surprisingly mysterious one even in humans. Many people will experience it at once time or another: the sudden pain that comes after eating or drinking something very cold too quickly. It’s thought that the cold substance causes arteries at the base of the skull to constrict briefly, causing a painful sensation. It seems highly likely that cats experience something similar when enjoying a frozen treat. A few years ago there was quite a fad for cat ice cream brain freeze videos, where people would give their cat some sort of frozen goody while filming the results.
It seems pretty clear that the cats were getting their very own version of the typical ice cream headache: first, they’d happily eat the frozen food or milk, then stop very suddenly with a puzzled look and a startled yelp of discomfort. The cats didn’t seem to be particularly uncomfortable and mostly went back to eating once the initial pain wore off. This kind of video is amusing for a certain sort of individual, I suppose, but hardly a sign of a compassionate and responsible owner. It’s unlikely to do any lasting harm but the pain is evident from the cats’ reactions. I do not support frightening or hurting animals purely for entertainment. The popularity of giving cats brain freeze for the sake of an online video was very disheartening.
If your cat acts as if she’s getting brain freeze when you give her a frozen treat, try offering smaller amounts or give her the food chilled rather than frozen. An ice-cream headache might not harm her in any real sense but it’s still painful and confusing. Chilled foods will help cool her down and shouldn’t make her head hurt.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.