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Which kitten food is best? A vet's guide to choosing the best diet for your young cat

A grey kitten eating from a can of kitten food
(Image credit: Getty)

Getting a new kitten is an incredibly joyful time for any family and knowing which kitten food is best is very important.  You want to give your new feline friend the very best, and that includes the best kitten food on the market.  But how do you decide which food to feed when there are so many choices available?  The truth is, there’s no one diet that is the best for your kitten but there are several factors to consider when choosing the best diet for your cat.  So, which options are right for YOUR cat as an individual?  Read on to learn more about choosing an appropriate diet for your kitten and how you can learn to find your way to the best diet for your growing kitten’s needs.

The importance of kitten food

Just like growing humans, growing kittens need an appropriate balance of nutrients to support their development.  Any nutrient deficiency or excess during this critical period of life can have long-lasting effects on your kitten’s health.  For this reason, veterinary nutritionists recommend feeding a diet specifically formulated for kittens until your cat is fully grown – usually around one year of age.  Commercially-prepared kitten foods are formulated with the correct balance of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are essential to a kitten’s growth.  Most cats should eat a kitten diet until around a year of age, at which point they can be transitioned to adult cat food.  

A black and white kitten eating in the back yard

(Image credit: Getty)

Choosing a kitten food

There’s no one diet that is “best” for all kittens, the same way there is no single diet that works best for all humans.  The best diet for your kitten will depend on several factors, including your kitten’s age, weight, body condition score, activity level, and overall health.  Your veterinarian is your best resource to help you choose an appropriate diet with these individual factors in mind. 

Before you head to the pet store, it is also helpful to learn how to read a pet food label.  There are a lot of misconceptions and tricky marketing tactics surrounding pet food, so be careful what you believe!  To combat this, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association has released some helpful guides, including how to evaluate nutrition information on the internet and how to choose a pet food.  These resources will help you make sure that you are choosing a reputable diet for your kitten.

Transitioning your kitten to a new food

If you do decide to switch to a new kitten food, make sure you do so gradually.  Switching foods abruptly can lead to digestive upset, including vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite.  You can help prevent this by transitioning to the new diet over the course of a week or two.  Start by mixing your kitten’s meal as 75% of the old diet and 25% of the new diet.  Feed this for a few days.  If your kitten tolerates it well, you can progress to 50% of the old diet and 50% of the new diet, again feeding this for a few days and monitoring your kitten for any signs of GI upset.  Finally, you can transition to 25% old diet and 75% new diet, and then to 100% of the new diet.  This slow transition will ensure your kitten stays healthy and happy during the change, and he’ll learn to love his new food!

Starting your kitten off right

Cats are texture-based eaters, meaning that the texture of their food is a big factor in whether or not they’ll choose to eat it.  Because of this, it’s very important to expose your kitten to both dry cat food and wet cat food during kittenhood, so that he or she gets used to both textures.  This will make life much easier later on, should you ever need to change your cat’s diet in adulthood!

Although many cats are natural grazers, it’s best not to get into the habit of leaving a bowl of food out all day.  Doing so can lead to excess weight gain, resulting in obesity and associated health issues.  Instead, offer your kitten measured portions of food at specific times of the day.  Even better, use puzzle feeders, a snuffle mat, or hide bits of food around the house to give your kitten some extra exercise and mental stimulation!  Your kitten will love the opportunity to use those hunting instincts, and it’s a great way to stave off weight gain and boredom.  

Finally, be sure to limit any cat treats or other snacks your kitten receives.  Treats, table scraps, and other little extras can contain a lot of extra calories that lead to weight gain.  A good rule of thumb is to have no more than 10% of your cat’s total daily calorie intake come from treats.  If you’re not sure how much to feed your cat, ask your veterinarian to calculate your cat’s required daily calorie intake.  This number can then be used to determine appropriate portion sizes (check the back of your cat food bag to find the number of calories per cup of food) and to determine how many treats are acceptable to give daily.

Ask your veterinarian to help you choose the best kitten food

Ultimately, the best kitten food for your cat will depend on several factors.  The best way to choose a diet for your kitten is to consult your veterinarian for product recommendations.  As your kitten grows and develops, your veterinarian can help you adjust the diet to meet your kitten’s changing needs.  

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.  Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/