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Top six kitten feeding tips: Keep your young cat strong and healthy

kitten feeding
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Proper kitten feeding, along with choosing the best kitten food, is an important component of getting your new pet off to a healthy start in life. Nursing kittens obtain all of their necessary nutrition from their mother’s milk, but they typically transition to kitten food at approximately four weeks old. Clearly, the needs of a young kitten differ significantly from the needs of an adult cat. Therefore, kittens should be fed a diet that is specially formulated to support their unique nutritional requirements during this period of rapid growth and development. You can find more veterinary advice on raising a young cat in our top six kitten care tips feature. 

1. Make any changes to your kitten’s diet slowly and gradually

Any time you switch your kitten from one food to another, it’s best to do so gradually. First, gradual food transitions give your kitten a chance to acclimate to the new food. Some kittens are hesitant to eat new foods, so offering a blend of the old and new food decreases the likelihood that your kitten will go without eating and become malnourished. More importantly, a gradual food change minimizes the likelihood that your kitten will develop diarrhea or other gastrointestinal signs in response to a food change. 

Dietary changes should take place over a period of approximately one week. On the first day of the transition period, add a very small amount of your kitten’s new food to a bowl of the old food. Each day, increase the quantity of new food while decreasing the quantity of old food, with the goal of feeding approximately a 50-50 mixture by mid-week. By the end of the week, you can completely eliminate the old food and feed your kitten solely the new diet. 

2. Look for a food that is nutritionally complete and balanced for kittens

Pet food labels can be complex and difficult to read. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish fact from marketing claims, which can make it challenging to determine whether you’re really providing your kitten with a diet that meets their nutritional  needs. 

When examining a bag or can of cat food, the best way to determine whether it’s appropriate for a kitten is to look for the Nutritional Adequacy Statement. This statement will list all of the life stages for which the food is complete and balanced. For example, a Nutritional Adequacy Statement for a kitten food may read “____ Cat Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for kittens.” If the Nutritional Adequacy Statement says that a food is intended solely for adult maintenance, it is not formulated to meet the nutritional needs of kittens.

3. Monitor your kitten’s appetite closely to ensure adequate calorie intake

As you have likely noticed, kittens are extremely active! Therefore, they need a significant number of calories to fuel their high-energy play. It’s important to monitor your kitten’s food intake, in order to ensure that he or she is eating enough. Feed your kitten on a regular schedule (twice daily is often best), so that you will notice a sudden drop in food intake. 

If your kitten has been eating well and then stops eating, this can be a sign of illness. A poor appetite that continues more than one day should prompt a call to the veterinarian to schedule an appointment. Call your veterinarian immediately if the poor appetite is accompanied by other signs, such as vomiting, diarrhea, or lethargy. 

kitten feeding

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4. Keep an eye on your kitten’s weight, especially after spay or neuter surgery

While you want to make sure that your kitten is receiving adequate nutrition, it’s equally important to ensure that your kitten is not overweight or obese. While weight gain can occur at any time during a cat’s life, spay or neuter surgery slows a kitten’s metabolism and can contribute to weight gain. 

In the weeks and months following surgery, keep an eye on your kitten’s weight. You may observe a small amount of weight gain, even without any increase in your kitten’s food intake. If you notice this occurring, there’s no need to panic; simply decrease your kitten’s daily food intake by approximately 10%. This small calorie reduction is typically adequate to help your kitten return to a healthy weight and maintain that weight for the long term. 

5. Acclimate your kitten to both dry and canned kitten foods

Dry and canned foods each have unique pros and cons. Cat owners often prefer the best dry cat foods because it is convenient. The best wet cat food is often higher in cost, and requires washing food bowls several times per day. However, canned cat food can offer a number of unique benefits. Canned food increases a cat’s water intake, which can aid in the prevention and treatment of kidney disease and lower urinary tract disease. Cats that eat canned food also tend to regulate their weight better and are less likely to become obese. 

While you may choose to feed your kitten dry food while he or she is young, it’s important to take into account that you may someday need to transition to a canned diet. However, cats’ dietary preferences are established at an early age. If you feed a dry diet through your cat’s early years and then must switch to canned food, you may have trouble enticing your cat to eat the food. Consider feeding a combination of dry and canned cat food during your cat’s early years so you can keep your options open for future feeding choices. 

6. Continue feeding high-quality kitten food until your kitten is one year old

You may be tempted to transition your cat to adult food once your kitten begins to look like an adult at around eight or nine months of age. Even at this age, however, your kitten is still developing rapidly. Switching to an adult food too early will rob your kitten of necessary nutrients that are needed for growth and development. Keep your kitten on a high-quality kitten food until he or she reaches 12 full months of age. At that time, you can gradually transition to the best cat food for adults. 

Prepare your kitten for a long and healthy life

While feeding a kitten may seem like a relatively straightforward task, making conscious decisions during this time can help ensure that your kitten gets off to the right start. Ensure that your kitten receives high-quality, developmentally appropriate food in order to help support growth and development. The decisions you make during these early months can help set your kitten up for a lifetime of success.