Every now and then, I see online about how a baby animal is orphaned and no longer has a mother to give the baby milk, only for another animal of a different species allow that animal to take their milk.

For example, a baby cat drinks milk from a dog, and a baby rabbit drinks milk from a cat.

Question is, since they are coming from different species, wouldn't the nutritional content from one animal might not be enough for another animal? How healthy is it, in general, for one animal to drink the milk from another animal?

  • 3
    Have you ever drank cow milk?
    – paparazzo
    Nov 1 '15 at 7:07
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    @Frisbee have you ever seen cows milk as the only ingredient in milk replacement for a human baby? Nov 1 '15 at 10:00
  • @JamesJenkins Baby formula? So you are saying cow milk is unhealthy for a human? Have you never drank cow milk?
    – paparazzo
    Nov 1 '15 at 13:21
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    Actually it is for most humans except those with Lactase persistence "The majority of people around the world remain lactase nonpersistent," Nov 1 '15 at 14:55
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    Goats seem to be popular milk-providers (not mother substitutes) for a number of orphaned species. Once I obtained goats, I would periodically be contacted by different rescues for milk. Clearly, it's not perfect, but it's better than nothing. Nov 2 '15 at 7:29

The short answer to your question is... sort of. In general, the nutritional requirements of different species do vary, even for infants and so the composition of the milk is important.

Consider, for example, that cats are obligate carnivores and require certain nutritional elements in their diet for health and growth, notably taurine. In addition, many cats are lactose intolerant and, while kittens do have lactase in their system, the amount of lactose in cows milk (to reference the assertion from the comments) is way more than the lactase in the kitten can handle. Add into that is that the proportions of other compounds, such as casein to whey, is off for kitten nutrition.1 Milk replacer for kittens does start with a bovine dairy source, but it's been modified and enhanced so as to be nutritionally appropriate (as it is for human infants).

That's not say it's impossible to cross-species nurse, by any means, but that in order to do so, you want to confirm that the make-up of the source milk contains the appropriate dietary support for the infant animal or that you're able to further supplement with other sources of nutrients. Bear in mind that cross-species nursing in captivity is often done under the supervision of veterinary specialists.

In the wild, this also does happen, surprisingly often, and some species tolerate it more than others on the giving front. In that event, the infant may get just enough solid nutrients to survive to the point that they're able to eat more adult food and continue to survive. In such cases, I would expect there to be some additional risk of reduced resistance to species-specific natural illnesses and possibly weakened bone or musculature, but that's just a risk, not assured. The success of this, long term, is likely going to work best when we're talking cross-species with comparable diets, carnivore to carnivore, herbivore to herbivore, etc. Not to mention that competition for the milk probably works best when the outside species is relatively able to compete for it.

Finally, on the tl;dr front -- Cross-species nursing is going to be a case of better that than nothing at all. If the choice is the milk of another species or starving to death, then the choice is rather easy to make...

1 Cats and Milk: Lactose Intolerance and other Dietary Concerns

  • 3
    You may want yo ask your vet about the specific species pair and ask whether some supplement would be advised.
    – keshlam
    Nov 1 '15 at 19:14

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