The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it dangerous to give a cat an ice cream brain freeze?

(Matias J. Ocner/The Miami Herald via AP)

Brain freeze is a pain for humans. Gulping a 7-Eleven cherry Slurpee or spooning Moose Tracks ice cream too fast can result in a scrunched-up face of temporary agony that’s fun to watch — but not experience.

Brain freeze is now spilling across species lines, starting with cats. The Internet can’t get enough cat videos, and right now it can’t get enough of cats with brain freeze.

The videos start when a pet owner shares some ice cream and the cat takes cute little cat licks. They end with cats freezing in horror or making an odd sound in what looks like pain.

Dwayne Godwin, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., said brain freeze in humans hasn’t been studied extensively. But he did offer an explanation of how brain freeze works. “Cold has an effect on the palate and arteries that run in the back of the throat,” he said.

Godwin said it is thought that the cold temperature causes a rapid change in the diameter of the anterior cerebral artery (one of the arteries that sends blood to the brain). The brain itself doesn’t have pain receptors, so the pain signal may be coming from the meninges, the protective covering of the brain, Godwin said.

But what about cats? I reached out to cat veterinarians across the country to get to the bottom of brain freeze and its effects on kitties. Here’s what the experts have to say:

Amy Cousino, veterinarian and owner of the Cat’s Meow Cat Clinic in Sebastian, Fla., is not a supporter of people intentionally giving their cats brain freeze. “It’s pretty unhealthy for the cat,” she said. “Cats have very similar nervous pathways [to humans].”

Eric Doughtery, veterinarian and medical director for The Cat Practice in New York,  isn’t totally convinced about the harmful effects of brain freeze in cats. “There hasn’t been much research on feline brain freeze,” he said. “I can’t imagine that [brain freeze] would be different in cats.”

Dougherty said there’s nothing wrong with feeding cats ice cream or yogurt. He cautioned that cats can have lactose intolerance, which can result in gastrointestinal problems and diarrhea.

He stressed that cats do not have the same dietary requirements as humans, but he understands why people might be tempted to feed their cats human food.

“Some people feel bad about feeding their cats the same thing every day, and they think the cat needs variety,” he said. “Some people feed [cats] table food because of the bonding experience.”

Nashville Cat Clinic veterinarian Sara Tamas said she is guilty of sometimes allowing her own cat to lick a bowl she finished using to eat ice cream. “A few licks is not harmful, but it has more calories than they need,” she said.

If you must insist on feeding your cat ice cream or making your own video about your cat having brain freeze, Tamas recommends no more than a teaspoon to a tablespoon a day. Like humans, cats can have harmful effects from too much sugar consumption.

“Every extra spoonful counts,” she said.