Proper kitten feeding, along with choosing the best kitten food, is essential to get your kitten off to a healthy start in life. Nursing kittens obtain nutrition from their mother’s milk, but kittens typically transition from nursing to eating kitten food at approximately four weeks old. The needs of a kitten differ significantly from the needs of an adult cat, so kittens need a diet specially formulated to support growth and development during their first year of life. You can find more veterinary advice on raising a young cat in our top six kitten care tips feature.
1. Introduce new foods slowly and gradually
If you switch your kitten from one food to another, it’s important to make changes slowly. First, gradual transitions give your kitten a chance to acclimate to the new food. Finicky eaters may need time to adapt; offering a blend of old and new foods decreases the likelihood that your kitten will go on a hunger strike. More importantly, though, a gradual food change reduces the chances that your kitten will develop diarrhea or other gastrointestinal signs in response to a food change.
Food changes should be performed over a period of about one week. On day one, 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. By mid-week, you should be feeding a 50-50 mixture of the old and new food. At the end of the week, you can completely eliminate the old food and feed solely the new diet.
2. Feed a diet 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 hype, making it tough to determine whether you’re really providing your kitten with a diet that meets their nutritional needs.
When evaluating a diet, pay careful attention to the Nutritional Adequacy Statement. Does the food provide complete and balanced nutrition? If so, for which life stages? For example, a Nutritional Adequacy Statement for a balanced kitten food may read “____ Cat Food provides complete and balanced nutrition for kittens.” It’s important to feed a diet that is complete and balanced for kittens. A diet that is intended solely for adult cats will not meet the needs of a growing kitten.
3. Monitor your kitten’s appetite
Kittens are extremely active, and they need a lot of calories to fuel their high-energy play. It’s important to monitor your kitten’s food intake and make sure he or she is eating enough. Feeding your kitten measured meals on a regular schedule (instead of feeding “free choice” and keeping the bowl constantly full) will help you notice changes in your kitten’s food intake.
A sudden decrease in appetite or a kitten not eating at all can be a sign of illness. Any decrease in appetite that lasts beyond a day or two should prompt a call to the veterinarian to schedule an appointment. Call your veterinarian immediately if the poor appetite is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or other signs of illness.
4. Monitor your kitten’s weight, especially after spay or neuter surgery
While it’s important to make sure your kitten is receiving enough nutrition, it’s equally important to ensure that your kitten is not overweight or obese. Weight gain can occur at any time during a cat’s life, but spay/neuter surgery is known to slow a kitten’s metabolism and can contribute to weight gain if you don’t adjust your kitten’s diet accordingly.
You may observe a small amount of weight gain in the weeks and months after spay/neuter surgery, even without a corresponding increase in your kitten’s food intake. If so, there’s no need to panic. Decrease your kitten’s daily food intake by approximately 10%, to slightly reduce the number of calories your kitten is eating. This small change is typically all that is needed to help your kitten return to a healthy weight and maintain that weight for the long term. If you need further assistance, talk to your veterinarian for specific recommendations.
5. Introduce your kitten to both dry and canned foods
Dry and canned foods each have unique pros and cons. Many cat owners prefer the best dry cat foods because they are convenient. The best wet cat food may be higher in cost, and requires washing food bowls several times per day. However, canned cat food has its 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 are also less likely to become obese.
Cats’ dietary preferences are established at an early age. If you feed a dry diet through your cat’s early years and then need to switch to canned food for medical reasons (for example, if your cat develops urinary tract disease), you may have trouble enticing your cat to eat canned food. Consider feeding a combination of dry and canned cat food during your cat’s early years, to keep your options open for future feeding choices
6. Feed high-quality kitten food until your kitten is one year old
You may be tempted to transition your cat to adult food as soon as your kitten begins to look “grown up,” at eight or nine months old. Even at this age, though, 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 high-quality kitten food until he or she reaches 12 full months of age. Then 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.
Looking for more support when it comes to your cat’s diet? How often should I feed my kitten is full of great tips that walk you through how much your kitten needs to eat at every stage of their development.
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Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.