It is a surprisingly common assumption that feeding a kitten is the same as feeding a cat, just with smaller portions. This isn’t true. Taking care of a kitten can be a pretty different experience from taking care of a cat, and I don’t just mean their cuteness and energy. In particular, kittens have different nutrient requirements and it is important to know what to feed them.
Many experienced cat owners may have never cared for a kitten as the adoption of adult, spayed cats is a common route to becoming a cat parent. If this sounds like you, or if you’ve never had a cat at all, take a few minutes to read and learn about your kitten’s needs.
Weaning Your Kitten
Kittens drink their mother’s milk for up to 8 weeks and a minimum of 4 weeks. Mother’s usually handle the feeding and weaning process at this stage, because weaning a kitten off milk is a delicate, natural process that requires care and attention.
If find yourself responsible for a kitten’s weaning and are at all unsure, you should definitely contact your vet. As a general guide, a suggested schedule for weaning may be:
- Age 4-5 weeks – provide a mixture of wet food and formula for the kitten to try. Supplement with normal formula while they adjust.
- Age 5-6 weeks – provide kibble that is moistened with water for your kitten to try nibbling.
- Age 7-8 weeks – your kitten should complete the switch to solid food.
It is unlikely that you will need to wean a kitten yourself, but you will definitely need to provide them with kitten food. But is kitten food the same as cat food? What should you be feeding them, and what nutrients do they need?
Kitten Food vs Cat Food
You can’t get away with providing your kitten with the same cat food you provide your other adult cats. You should provide your kitten with kitten food that is tailored to their specific needs. There are three key differences between cat and kitten nutrition that the best kitten food will take into account:
- Your kitten has a smaller stomach
This means they are likely to need smaller meals. If you were to give cat food to a kitten, they will not finish it. This might not appear to be a problem if you prefer the free feeding method, where you keep their bowl full all day so that they may graze as they wish, but this method may encourage obesity and is not to be advised as a permanent feeding method.
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- They will have triple the energy needs
While the exact increase in energy demand depends on how many months old your kitten is and their physiology, it is certain that they will need more energy than an adult cat. This is because they require energy to support their growth and high activity levels. If you couple this with their small stomachs, many kittens will require 3, or even 4, meals a day.
- Cats and kittens need different nutrition
As they are growing so incredibly quickly, kittens need more fat, fatty acids and some proteins and vitamins. These nutrients will ensure sustained, healthy growth in every aspect of their development, from their muscles to their bones.
The three key nutritional needs of your kitten that are different from your other cats are protein, fat and minerals. Protein is essential for your kitten’s muscles and cartilage development. Fat, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, help deliver fat soluble vitamins around the body and provide a lot of the extra energy they need to explore the world and grow. Finally, minerals such as calcium will give your cat strong bones and teeth.
Getting the right amount of protein, fat and minerals at this stage of their life will help them later on in life. Ingesting enough protein to support muscle growth, for example, may limit the impact, or even the development, of painful degenerative conditions when they are much older.
As your kitten needs a different balance of nutrition in their diet, the best kitten food will have:
- More Protein, usually from about 30% to 34%
- More fat, usually from about 18% to 20%
- Less Fiber, usually from about 5% to 3%
- More Magnesium, usually from about 0.09% to 0.10%
- Less Taurine, usually from about 0.19% to 0.18%
Wet or Dry Kitten Food
Many kitten owners also wonder whether wet or dry kitten food is best. The arguments for and against each side are similar to the pros and cons of the same question posed about adult cat food. Dry cat food used to be promoted as beneficial for cat’s teeth due to the act of chewing, but is also criticized for being mostly carbohydrates which is a leading cause of obesity in cats.
On the other hand, wet cat food is promoted as being closer to a cat’s natural diet, with more protein and fat. When it comes to kittens, wet food may be best for this reason because, as we’ve already discussed, kittens need more protein and fat. It is also worth considering that a kitten’s small teeth may not be able to handle dry food.
The decision to go with wet or dry food is a personal one, and while the nutrients argument may suggest you should choose wet kitten food, many owners use a mixed approach as they want their kitten to be able to make the switch to dry food later on. Whatever your choice, you should be aware that different foods may require different feeding patterns. Many wet, canned foods will feed a kitten sufficiently with two meals a day, while dry foods suggest four. Always be sure to read the manufacturers serving suggestions and work with your vet to avoid overfeeding.
What Not to Feed My Kitten
Cat treats are a great way to bond with, reward and train your cat, so you might be wondering if it is a good idea to be giving treats to a kitten. The answer is yes, it can be a good idea. As with all cats, however, you need to limit the amount of treats you are giving. The rule to follow is to never give treats to your cat or kitten that exceed 10% of their calorie intake. You should also consider the size of the treats, as potential choking hazards.
It is wise to stick to commercial cat treats as there are many human foods that can be bad for your kitten. This includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Raw fish
- Raw meat or liver
- Raw eggs
How to Feed My Kitten
Essentially, the nutrients and food needed by your kitten changes depending on what stage your kitten is at. While you need to take into account your kitten’s own personality and circumstance, if you want an approximate feeding schedule for the first year of your kitten’s life, a general guide could be:
- First Month: Mother’s milk
- Second Month: Weaning
- Third and Fourth Month: Free feeding using kitten food
- Fourth and Fifth Month: 3 to 4 meals of kitten food
- Sixth Month: Start to move to 2 meals of kitten food
- Ninth to Twelfth Month: Start the gradual switch to adult cat food
There are many factors that may influence a change in the above suggested schedule, and so it should really be treated only as a guide. There can be a huge difference in the personality and circumstances of your kitten. Variables that may impact your kitten’s feeding schedule can include:
- Their personality
An adventurous kitty will need more energy than a quiet, sedate kitty. Similarly, some cats can be very greedy and this means that some kittens may not be suitable for the free feeding stage at all, as it may cause obesity. Preventing obesity is essential for providing your cat with a long, healthy, happy life.
- Their current health
If your kitten is already obese, or has another health concern, their diet may need to reflect this. You should discuss this with your vet to ensure you are meeting their needs and doing what is best for them.
- Type of food provided
As we’ve already touched on, wet and dry food offer very different feeding schedules. This variable is more complex if you offer them a mixed diet. This may impact their feeding development and schedule. Start by following the suggestion on the packaging. Turn to your vet if you need more help.
- Their environment
Just like with all pets, if you are bringing up a kitten somewhere in the sunbelt, they will need more water and liquid than kittens in Alaska. This may mean wet kitten food is a good idea and may mean you need to deviate from the suggestions of the manufacturer. As always, if you unsure – talk to a vet.
Let your cat’s behavior and personality be your guide. As long as they remain physically healthy and are not obese, it is okay if they don’t seem ready for the next stage or even reject it. Wait and try again the following week, and repeat until they are ready.