Are German Shepherds Lactose Intolerant? What You Need To Know


My German Shepherd loves an occasional piece of cheese, however, when I recently let her lick some heavy whipping cream straight from the whisk, she suffered from an upset stomach and diarrhea within a few hours. So that got me wondering whether German Shepherds are lactose intolerant?

Not all German Shepherds are lactose intolerant and some dogs can digest all types of dairy foods. However, German Shepherds have varying degrees of lactose intolerance and some may be able to tolerate only certain types of dairy, whereas others will experience adverse reactions to all dairy in general.

So, what exactly is lactose and why can my German Shepherd digest some dairy foods and not others? This article will cover the above questions and loads more!

Are German Shepherds Lactose Intolerant? German Shepherd licking whipped cream from a whisk
My German Shepherd “Willow” licking some cream

For an in-depth look at whether your German Shepherd is lactose intolerant, read on!

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Table Of Contents

Why is Lactose Bad For German Shepherds?

Why is lactose bad for German Shepherds? Before we can answer this question, let’s firstly take a look at what exactly lactose is.

Lactose is a type of sugar that’s found in milk and other milk-based (dairy) products. If your German Shepherd cannot digest lactose they will be what’s known as lactose intolerant. This condition is not harmful to your dog, however, it will be unpleasant.

Are German Shepherds Lactose Intolerant? Assorted dairy products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream)
Assorted Dairy Products (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream)

When your German Shepherd drinks milk or a similar dairy product (for example, cream, ice-cream, cheese, or yogurt) the lactose requires an enzyme called lactase to digest the food or drink. An enzyme is simply a substance that acts as a catalyst to bring about a specific biochemical reaction – in this case, digestion.

German Shepherd puppies have plenty of lactase which is needed to break down their mother’s milk enabling them to get all the nutrients required. However, once they have been weaned from their mother they produce less and less lactase and this is the stage where some dogs may develop an intolerance to lactose.

Dairy foods contain varying amounts of lactose (see table below) depending on how the food is processed, for example, most types of cheese are quite low as when processing the milk into cheese, the amount of lactose is reduced.

German Shepherds also have varying degrees of lactose intolerance and all dogs are different. As an example, my German Shepherd enjoys the occasional very small bowl of milk – the equivalent of a few tablespoons. However, a few licks of heavy whipping cream causes her to suffer from the tummy troubles within a few hours!

Your dog may also display a varying degree of tolerability if the milk product is consumed with other foods. For example, a spoonful or two of yogurt on top of your dog’s food may not cause any GI upset, whereas the same quantity of yogurt eaten alone might be enough to cause excessive gas or diarrhea.

Also, it’s worth noting that different brands of dairy foods may have different effects on your dog.

My German Shepherd loves a spoonful of plain Greek yogurt on top of her food.

Yogurt is also interesting as this food may not cause your dog any problems at all! This is because many of the bacterial strains in yogurt produce lactase, helping in the breakdown of lactose.

The below table shows the lactose content of some dairy foods in grams per 100 grams/ml of the product. This data was compiled courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture:

MILK PRODUCT LACTOSE CONTENT
Milk, condensed10-16
Milk, low fat4-5
Milk, whole fat (cow, goat, or sheep)4-5
Cream, half and half4
Cream, light4
Cream, sour4
Yogurt, whole milk4
Ice-cream3-8
Buttermilk3-5
Cream, whipping3
Yogurt, low fat2-7
Cheese, ricotta1-5
Cheese, cottage or cream 1-3
Cheese, mozzarella 1-3
Butter0.5-1
Cheese, feta0.5
Cheese, cheddar0.1

As you can see from the above table, cheese and some yogurts contain the least amount of lactose. The lower the amount of lactose the better chance your dog has of tolerating the food without any distress. As an example, your German Shepherd may be able to tolerate a few small pieces of cheese whereas a few tablespoons of milk may cause problems.

I know my German Shepherd never turns her nose up at a small chunk of cheddar as a treat – and she can certainly tolerate it well!

Can German Shepherds Drink Milk?

This appears to be quite a common question from dog owners and opinion is divided. So, can German Shepherds drink milk?

German Shepherds can drink milk, however, as in the case of all dairy foods, it depends on whether the dog can tolerate the amount of lactose it contains.

Can German Shepherds Drink Milk? German Shepherd licking milk from a bowl
My German Shepherd “Willow” enjoying a lick of milk!

Some dogs may experience unpleasant reactions to lactose, including flatulence, diarrhea, and vomiting whereas others can be fed a few spoonfuls of milk on an occasional basis which can be a nice reward for them without any side effects at all.

When I’m referring to milk in this article, I’m referring to cow’s milk which has been long associated with good health for you and me as it is packed with nutrients and provides energy.

Milk contains high amounts of calcium which is good for healthy bones and teeth and cow’s milk is fortified with vitamin D which is also good for healthy bones.

It is a good source of potassium which is great for the heart and milk is a rich source of high-quality protein that contains all of the essential amino acids. It contains many other vitamins and minerals and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

Check out this 3-minute video from “Animal Wised” on whether dogs can drink milk. They mention how some dog owners have the opinion that milk is harmful to dogs and how others believe that it is completely safe. The best part is that there are loads of clips of cute puppies!

Is it OK for Dogs to Drink Milk?

The bottom line is that although milk may be a good choice for some German Shepherds, others can’t digest it as they can’t tolerate the lactose.

If you wish to try your German Shepherd with some milk or any other dairy food, it should only be given in moderation or as an occasional treat. Many dog owners only find out that their dog is lactose intolerant after they’ve fed them milk.

Remember – dairy foods are not an essential part of your German Shepherd’s diet. If you find your dog cannot tolerate even a small amount of milk it will be an unpleasant experience for both of you!

“Due to the deficient levels of lactase, milk ingestion can lead to GI upset including diarrhea and vomiting.”

Pet MD

It’s also interesting to note that the lactose content of milk is also not greatly affected by heat or fat content, for example, whole fat milk contains the same amount of lactose as low-fat milk.

Many dairy foods, for example, whole fat milk and cheese may also contain too much fat which can also lead to diarrhea and vomiting. German Shepherd dogs are known to have sensitive stomachs and repeatedly eating high-fat foods may also lead to pancreatitis which is a potentially serious disease.

High-fat foods can also lead to obesity – especially if your dog is inactive or elderly.

You may also find that your dog is allergic to the protein in milk and this can cause not only vomiting and diarrhea but also itchy red skin.

Can German Shepherd Puppies Drink Milk?

Many dog owners will ask the question, “can German Shepherd puppies drink milk?”

To answer this question, let’s firstly look at the lactose content of cow’s milk. Milk contains around 5% lactose, whether it is whole full fat or low fat, and this compares to around 3% in a female dog’s milk.

So, can German Shepherd puppies drink milk? German Shepherd puppies must not drink milk as when they consume milk from a cow they have to metabolize a higher quantity of lactose than that of the milk that comes from their mother.

Even with this small difference, German Shepherd puppies may still have a hard time digesting cow’s milk which can often overwhelm a puppies’ delicate digestive system and cause symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting. Therefore, cow’s milk is best avoided – the only milk they need comes straight from Mom!

Even in rare cases where the puppy has been orphaned, or the mother has fallen ill, milk from a cow is still inappropriate. It is important to either seek out a foster mother for nursing or use a puppy milk replacer in these situations.

Puppy milk formula mimics a puppies’ mother’s milk and has a lactose content very close to that of maternal milk and is easy for the puppy to break down. The nutritional composition is also as close as possible to a bitch’s milk, with high energy and protein levels. It is also easy to prepare.

Can German Shepherds Drink Lactose-Free Milk?

If you would still like to feed your German Shepherd dairy foods then there are some alternative dairy-similar products you could try. Some of these are:

  • Lactose-free milk
  • Lactose-free dairy
  • Almond milk products
  • Soy milk products
Are German Shepherds Lactose Intolerant? A Selection of Lactose-Free Dairy Products, Lactose-free milk, Almond milk, lactose-free yogurt, lactose-free cheese
Selection of lactose-free dairy products

There are several varieties of lactose-free milk and lactose-free dairy available that may be suitable for your German Shepherd, however, when choosing a non-dairy milk substitute, keep this in mind:

Many lactose-free products contain added ingredients, e.g. sweeteners, preservatives, and artificial flavors.

If you decide to try your dog with almond milk, you will need to experiment with a tiny amount. Although almonds are technically safe for dogs to eat, they have a high-fat content which can also cause additional gastrointestinal problems.

Soy milk products are generally safe for most dogs, however, excessive amounts are not recommended:

“Excessive amounts have been shown to increase estrogen-like activity and can lower thyroid levels.” 

Wag!

Soy milk is also high in calories and sugar which can lead to weight gain and tooth decay. You must also carefully check the ingredients and make sure the product does not contain xylitol (sweetener) which is poisonous to dogs.

Remember, if you wish to feed lactose-free dairy foods to your German Shepherd, only feed small amounts in moderation and make sure you speak to your vet if you have any questions or concerns about any lactose-free products.

My take on the subject is this – there would have to be a really good reason why I would want to feed my dog lactose-free foods as your dog will thrive perfectly well on a healthy diet suitable for a German Shepherd without them. Just my two cents worth!

What Are The Symptoms of Lactose Intolerance in German Shepherds?

You and I have learned that due to insufficient amounts of lactase to break down the sugars in milk products, some adult German Shepherd dogs can have a more difficult time digesting it.

Are German Shepherds Lactose Intolerant? Flowing milk in the shape of a bone illustration

The lactose passes undigested through your dog’s GI tract and into their large intestine which draws in water causing diarrhea. The fermentation of bacteria in their colon may also cause gas and general discomfort.

German Shepherds and all dog breeds that are lactose intolerant will experience the same acute intestinal symptoms as humans suffering from the same condition. The symptoms are not life-threatening unless they continue for an extended time although this is rare.

These are some of the symptoms to be aware of:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Dehydration
  • Diarrhea
  • Flatulence
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive thirst
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss

Some of these symptoms may start as soon as 30 minutes to 2 hours from your dog consuming the milk product.

How Do You Treat Lactose Intolerance in German Shepherds?

The initial treatment of lactose intolerance in German Shepherds consists of eliminating the offending dairy product. It is then a case of waiting for the lactose to pass through your dog’s digestive system.

In the meantime, you should try to settle your German Shepherd’s stomach by feeding a bland diet, for example, cooked chicken and white rice, until the symptoms have calmed down. These foods are highly recommended for treating your dog’s tummy troubles. You can also find other ideas and helpful advice on what to feed a German Shepherd with diarrhea here.

Make sure that your dog does not become dehydrated due to diarrhea. Fortunately, most dogs recover within a couple of days, however, diarrhea left too long can lead to dehydration. You must contact your veterinarian for advice if diarrhea persists as they may recommend your German Shepherd fasts for 24 hours to help speed up recovery.

When a dog becomes dehydrated blood flow is reduced which subsequently reduces the delivery of oxygen to organs and tissue. There is also a loss of electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride, and potassium which all have important functions.

In severe cases of dog dehydration, the shortage of fluids can lead to kidney and other organ failure and then death. You don’t need to worry though, as this is quite rare. However, these are the symptoms of dehydration to look out for, courtesy of the American Kennel Club:

  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting, with or without diarrhea
  • Reduced energy levels and lethargy
  • Panting
  • Sunken, dry-looking eyes
  • Dry nose
  • Dry, sticky gums
  • Thick saliva

Dogs who are suffering from diarrhea will need to keep their fluid levels up to replace the extra water they’re losing in their poop. Make sure your German Shepherd has access to water at all times, and that they are drinking throughout the day.

A good idea is to let them lick ice cubes which can also help with rehydration. You can also use a dog water fountain such as the Petsafe Drinkwell from Amazon that entices your dog to drink. I like this one as it’s two-tiered and is the perfect size for large dogs. This one also includes carbon filters to remove bad tastes and odors from the water.

Once the symptoms have gone, gently reintroduce your dog to their regular diet over the next few days. If there is no improvement with the bland diet after a day or so, and diarrhea persists, you should visit your veterinarian for advice and eliminate any other cause.

What is the Difference Between Lactose Intolerance and a Dairy Allergy?

Many people get confused between German Shepherd food intolerance and a German Shepherd food allergy and they are not the same thing. We have learned that lactose intolerance is when your dog has insufficient amounts of the enzyme lactase which is needed to break down lactose, the sugar found in milk and dairy foods.

In contrast, an allergy to a certain food is an over-response or hypersensitivity by your German Shepherd’s immune system to a usually harmless food. For example, a milk allergy is caused by an allergic reaction to the protein in milk, or a food allergy can be caused by the protein in fish, lamb, or eggs.

Your dog’s immune system reacts to the food as if it were under attack and tries to defend itself against the threat with antibodies. When the allergen (food in this case) comes into contact with the antibodies, histamine is released which causes inflammation, e.g. redness, swelling, and itching.

Other symptoms of a food allergy in dogs include vomiting and diarrhea, ear infections, and red and watery eyes.

An allergic reaction doesn’t happen the first time a dog is exposed to the allergen but develops in time and sometimes this can take years.

Some German Shepherds may suddenly develop an allergy to a specific type of protein, e.g. beef or chicken, and may subsequently have to change that protein source in their diet to one they have never eaten before such as novel protein sources like duck or venison.

To find out a ton more info on German Shepherd’s allergies, I wrote an in-depth article including causes, symptoms, treatments, and prevention tips that you may find helpful.

Final Thoughts

You and I now know that not all German Shepherds are lactose intolerant. Although dairy foods are not an essential part of our German Shepherd’s diet, if you wish to try your dog with any milk-based product I’d recommend you try one type at a time.

Many dog owners use cubes of cheese as training treats or feed a few tablespoons of milk with no ill-effects, including myself.

It’s also wise to consult your veterinarian before introducing anything new into your German Shepherds diet, especially if they already have an underlying medical condition, for example, diabetes.

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Sharon Waddington

I am the owner of World of Dogz. I have a female German Shepherd named Willow, and I've worked with dogs for almost 30 years. I love spending time with her, and I enjoy sharing my knowledge and expertise of all things dogs on this site!

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