Can cats eat cheese?
You’d think you had a dog.
You pull out a block of Jarlsberg to make yourself a cheese-and-cracker snack, or a few slices of American for a quick grilled-cheese sandwich. And suddenly, the cat appears from out of nowhere, tangling herself in your legs, and meowing to wake the dead. Your once-dignified feline is begging (like a dog, for goodness’ sake!) for a bit of cheese.
If your cat wants cheese, should you give him some?
Cats are obligate carnivores and cheese doesn’t belong on the menu
Cats are obligate carnivores. That means that they must eat meat. They are obliged to eat meat. They eat meat out of necessity.
Humans (and dogs for that matter) are omnivores. Omni means “all.” We can maintain our health by eating all kinds of food, including dairy items like cheese.
Cats, as obligate carnivores, rely on nutrients which can only be found in animal products. They evolved to eat prey that contains high amounts of protein, moderate amounts of fat and minimal carbohydrates. They require the same proportions of these nutrients in their diets today.
Yes, cheese is an animal product, and yes, there is ample protein in cheese. But cheese doesn’t contain the exact right kind of protein cats need. Protein provides amino acids, the building blocks of all body tissues. Cats can make most of the amino acids that they need using the proteins they eat, but they can’t make their own taurine and arginine. Without taurine specifically, cats experience a wide range of health problems, including heart failure, vision problems, blood clotting issues, and immune system problems. Cheese has very little taurine.
But you’re not asking if you can replace all of your cat’s special cat food with cheese, are you? You’re asking if your cat can have a little bit of cheese.
Can cats eat just a little bit of cheese?
So, cheese isn’t meat. You won’t give your cat a lot, you say. You won’t ruin his appetite for his healthy food with cheese. What’s wrong with a little nibble of cheese?
A small amount of cheese isn’t toxic. If you want to give your cat a pill in a tiny piece of cheese, you can do that and you won’t be poisoning him. But note that cats have varying levels of tolerance for dairy products.
Cheese can be very upsetting to a cat’s delicate digestive system. We omnivores produce a special enzyme called “lactase” to break down the protein called “lactose” that is in dairy products. But cats don’t produce this enzyme. Without lactase, a cat’s liver cannot properly process dairy, and some cats experience vomiting and diarrhea – sometimes very severe – when they ingest dairy products like cheese.
Can cats eat non-dairy cheese?
Non-dairy cheese may not have lactose, but it contains other things that are not good for cats, and some don’t even offer the protein advantage of real cheese.
Non-dairy cheese may also be high in fat and salt, neither of which is healthful for your cat.
A cat’s digestive system was not designed to process a lot of fat. A cat’s small intestine is very short compared to other animal species, because an obligate carnivore generally eats foods that are easy to digest. Since these foods don’t take long to break down, cats don’t require a very long digestive tract. A short small intestine offers some advantages, like allowing a cat’s body to conserve energy, but it's not good for digesting large amounts of fat.
Too much salt can cause salt poisoning. Electrolytes are electrically charged essential minerals that help produce energy, enable muscle contractions (including those in the heart), and regulate the fluid levels in the blood, among other things, and too much salt can throw off the balance of electrolytes in a cat’s body. Severe salt-poisoning cases can even lead to death.
Cats can accidentally get salt poisoning in a variety of ways. An outdoor cat in winter may lick rock salt off his paws. An indoor cat may lap water from a saltwater aquarium, or consume homemade salt playdough. 
An accidental salt poisoning is a terrible thing, but you certainly don’t want to feed your cat salty food.
Can kittens eat cheese?
Young kittens drink their mothers’ milk and they don’t get sick from all that dairy. Why?
Interestingly, kittens do manufacture enough of the lactase enzyme to allow them to digest their mothers’ milk. But as they grow, their bodies produce less and less lactase, and by the time a kitten is weaned, most are completely lactose-intolerant.
You should not give your kitten cheese even if he can temporarily digest cheese. Kittens have very specific dietary requirements and they need every calorie they consume to help them grow and develop to their full potential.
Some kinds of cheese are better than others for cats
Cheeses vary in the amounts of lactose they contain.
Hard block cheeses like parmesan, swiss, and cheddar have lower amounts of lactose. These kinds are less likely to upset a cat’s digestive system.
Soft cheeses like cottage cheese, cream cheese, mozzarella, brie, and camembert have more lactose and should be avoided.
Some soft cheeses are made with raw (unpasteurized) milk, which could contain dangerous bacteria, including salmonella and listeria. These include brie, camembert, feta, queso blanco, and queso fresco, among others. Read the label to see how your cheese has been processed and whether the milk has been pasteurized to kill germs.
Certain cheeses, like stilton and blue cheese, that have visible mold on them should not be fed to any pet. These cheeses are made with cultures of the mold penicillium, which can be toxic to pets.
(If you're interested in a related topic, read, "How much should I feed my cat?")
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
 “Feeding Your Cat.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, 20 July 2018, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feeding-your-cat.
 “My Cat Loves Cheese! Get The Facts About Cats and Cheese.” Blue Valley Animal Hospital, 17 Jan. 2020, www.bluevalleyanimalhospital.net/blog/my-cat-loves-cheese-get-the-facts-about-cats-and-cheese.
 Jolitiz, Stephanie. Digestive Tract Comparison, 2011, www.cpp.edu/honorscollege/documents/convocation/AG/AVS_Jolitz.pdf.
 O'Brien, Christine. “Can Cats Eat Cheese?” Hill's Pet Nutrition, 1 Apr. 2021, www.hillspet.com/cat-care/nutrition-feeding/can-cats-eat-cheese.