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What to Feed a Kitten

The Proper Nutrition for Kittens

By Mary Kearl. November 19, 2012 | See Comments

  • expert or vet photo
    vet verified

    Dr. Joseph J. Wakshlag, DVM

    Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition

    Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine Ithaca, NY

What to Feed a Kitten

Kittens will need to drink their mother's milk for the first few weeks of their life, and then be transitioned to a kitten food diet. Here's what you need to know about the proper nutrition for kittens.

Cats of all ages must have higher protein diets than dogs and people. Unlike omnivorous humans and dogs, since cats are carnivores, their survival depends on significant nutrition from animal-based sources. The result is a feline diet that contains high levels of protein, and moderate fat and carbohydrate content.

Here’s what you need to know about the proper food and nutrition for kittens—from the newborn stage to the time they’re ready for adult cat food.

For Newborn Kittens

Through their milk, mama cats provide all the nutrients their kittens need until they are about four weeks old, at which point mother cats typically begin the process of weaning kittens off their milk. From a natural standpoint, this is actually the time that mother’s milk starts to decline in production and kittens will not meet their needs for growth if they continue to feed only on mother’s milk.

If a mother’s milk is not available for your newborn kitten, speak with your vet about a suitable replacement. By eight weeks, your young cat should be transitioning to commercial pet food. And since the process of weaning typically takes place over a 2-4 week time period, by 10 weeks, most kitties are fully weaned, depending on when the process is started.

Promoting Healthy Growth

Portions:

As a general rule for all cats, the amount of food required every day will depend on a several factors, like age, breed, sex, level of activity, behavior, environment, and metabolism.

Protein:

Cats need 20 amino acids—the “building blocks” of proteins. 10 of these amino acids are made in the cat's body. The remaining 10 must come from dietary sources. Arginine is an important amino acid to look for, as it helps with a cat’s natural ammonia detoxification process. Make sure your pet’s food contains enough taurine as well. While not strictly an animo acid, it helps maintain cardiovascular, reproductive, and visual health.

Fats:

Fats help fuel your cat--they assist in the absorption of important vitamins, and are good for your cat’s skin and coat. Unlike dogs, cats require linoleic and arachindonic acid; and arachidonic acid is typically found in animal fat sources. Be careful: overfeeding your kitten fats can contribute to weight gain and obesity.

Look for these amounts of proteins and fats in your kitten's food:

  Dry Food Wet Food
Protein 32% or more 8% or more
Fat 14% or more 4% or more

Carbohydrates:

Though their need for carbs is low, cats typically don’t have trouble handling significant amounts of carbohydrate in their diet, and kittens are used to getting these carbohydrates as lactose from their mother’s milk. That said, some dietary sources can be problematic. In particular, getting too much lactose from cow’s milk can cause our kitties to suffer from bloating, gas, and diarrhea. As they get past weaning age, lactose will likely upset their tummies, particularly since the content of lactose in cow’s milk is significantly higher than in cat’s milk.

Vitamins:

While cats can produce their own source of vitamin C, they cannot do the same for vitamin A, so it needs to be contained in their diet. In addition, cat diets should be fortified with vitamin D since they cannot synthesize it in their skin like humans can. Cats also have higher dietary requirements for thiamin and niacin, making it important to feed your pet foods formulated specifically for cats.

How to Find a Balanced Diet:

Commercially prepared food for cats or kittens should contain all these essentials your loved one needs in the right balance.

Check the Bag:

Look for one of these claims: “complete and balanced nutrition,” or “meets the nutritional requirements of kittens established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO),” or one that meets these requirements for “all life stages." The AAFCO regulates the appropriate amounts of important nutrients in pet foods.

Be Careful of Extra Supplements:

One common mistake made when caring for cats is over-supplementing their diets with vitamins and minerals, which should already be contained in commercially available pet food in the right amounts. Adding too much extra, or too much of the same supplement, could potentially have serious health effects.

A Mix of Wet and Dry:

When browsing commercial food for your cat, you have the choices of dry, semi-moist, and wet food, all of which are healthy options. Giving your kitten both dry and wet food can help them get the benefits of both kinds.

Homemade Options:

If you want to make your pet’s food at home, seek the guidance of a veterinarian or board certified veterinary nutritionist.

How to Know if You've Made the Right Choice

The best way to know if what you’re feeding your kitten is healthy? You can evaluate the outcome yourself. Is your kitten continuing to grow at a good rate? Is your kitty showing signs of good health like playfulness and shiny fur? Then you’ve most likely picked a keeper.

How Much Food, How Often?

Store-bought pet food designed for kittens typically includes approximate portions. These guidelines can be followed to start and tweaked to fit your pet’s needs.

Leaving food out for free-range grazing is a good idea if your cat is underweight, is growing at a slow rate, or experiences stomach issues from eating too quickly at defined mealtimes. 

Portion control—serving up defined meals via a measuring cup—should be practiced with overweight and chubby kittens. In these cases, the meals should be served three to four times a day for young cats under the age of six months. Cats older than this can begin eating meals two times a day.

Don’t Forget Water!

Although cats have a low drive to drink it, water is the most important nutrient for your pet to consume. To ensure your pet’s good health, leave plenty of fresh water in multiple places around the home. Canned food already contains some water, so incorporating wet food into your kitten's diet can help.

Is Your Cat Ready for Food for Adult Cats?

By twelve months, it’s time to transition your pet to an adult cat diet.

More on Caring for Kittens and Cats:

Who Needs Pet Insurance
The Perfect Gifts for Cats
Nutriton for Senior Cats

This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine. 

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