You may want to think twice before sharing a bit of cheddar.

Cheese is generally considered to be a safe food for cats, but there are many potential problems, as well. In fact, there are so many potential problems that it may be easier to avoid cheese altogether. Because cheese isn't part of a complete and balanced diet for felines and because so many cats can't digest dairy, there's no need to go out of your way to get your cat to eat it. However, if your cat is curious or you think a bit of cheese might be a good incentive for good behavior, follow the guidelines below for the safest approach to sharing a slice of Swiss.

cat reaching for cheese on the kitchen counter; can cats eat cheese
Credit: Lysikova Irina

Can Cats Eat Cheese Safely? 

While the University of Missouri Small Animal Clinical Nutrition Service in Columbia, Mo., lists cheese as a safe food for cats, there are caveats.

First, cheese is considered to be safe for healthy cats. "So if your cat has a health condition, such as heart or kidney disease and needs a low-sodium diet, this general rule doesn't apply," Theresa Entriken, DVM, a veterinary consultant based in Leawood, Kan., says. 

Cats can vary a lot when it comes to tolerating certain foods. What one cat tolerates well might cause problems for another cat. Cats are lactose intolerant and many develop digestive issues (e.g. diarrhea, constipation, vomiting) after eating dairy products. Hard cheeses like cheddar and Swiss are lower in lactose, so they may be a safer (though not risk-free) pick. Soft cheeses like Brie, mozzarella, and cottage cheese contain higher amounts of lactose and fat, making them less-than-ideal treats for your kitty.

Cheese often has added ingredients that are toxic to cats. Always avoid cheeses containing onions, garlic, and chives. You should also steer clear of moldy cheeses like blue cheese. It's name comes from the spots of Penicillium, a type of fungus that grows on aging food and can be toxic to pets. 

If you know or suspect that your cat has eaten any of the toxic foods above, call your veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (888-426-4435) as soon as possible.

Are There Nutritional Benefits to Feeding Your Cat Cheese?

As obligate carnivores, cats rely on nutrients found only in animal products. "The simplest and most convenient way to meet the nutrient requirements of a cat," the Clinical Nutrition Service explains, "is to provide them with a complete and balanced commercial diet formulated by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist or an individual with a PhD in animal nutrition." 

If your cat is getting all of his required nutrients from his diet, treats like cheese don't have nutritional benefits. In addition, the majority of your cat's calories should come from foods specially formulated to give him the nutrients he needs. Human foods like cheese should only be given occasionally and in moderation.

How to Feed Your Cat Cheese Safely

While your cat shouldn't get free range over the charcuterie board, you can safely give them a small bite. Taking into account the points above, here are some guidelines for safely feeding cheese to your cat:

Ask. Chat with your veterinarian before you give your cat any new human foods—even if they're generally considered to be safe for pets. 

Calculate. Your veterinarian can help you figure out how many calories your cat needs and his ideal weight. With those numbers in mind, you can calculate how treats like cheese might fit into your cat's nutrition plan. Since the Clinical Nutrition Service says treats shouldn't make up more than 10 percent of your cat's total daily calories, you'll want to know how many calories that piece of cheese has—and whether it exceeds the 10-percent target. 

Check the nutrition label on the package of cheese to calculate the correct portion size and total calories. This is also a good time to double-check the ingredient list to make sure it doesn't contain any poisonous additions. 

Prepare. Cut up the portion of cheese into cat-bite-sized pieces that are easy for your pet to manage. The size of your cat's kibble can give you a good idea of what to aim for. 

Monitor. "Feed only a small amount of a new food or treat, and try only one novel food at a time," Entriken says. "That way you can more easily and quickly identify trouble if it arises." If your cat shows signs of gastrointestinal distress such as vomiting or diarrhea, discontinue feeding the culprit treat and call your veterinarian.