The Can't-Miss Guide to Optimal Kitten Nutrition

Congratulations on your new kitten—your bundle of joy, mischief, snuggles, a few loving nips and scratches, purrs, and the softest fur you’ll ever feel. You're already likely feeling like you could have never loved another living being so much, which hopefully means you want to do everything you can to prolong the life of your furry feline.

One of the best ways you can do that is to get your kitten on the path to good nutrition, and we share tips on how to do that and how to best care for your kitten below.

Nursing kittens

When Are Kittens Weaned From Their Mothers?

First things first: each kitten is an individual, so weaning age can vary a bit, and, if a kitten doesn't seem to be ready, you shouldn't rush them. (If you've found or are caring for a litter of motherless kittens, take a look at this blog about kitten care!)

In general, kittens will exclusively nurse from their mom until they are about 4-5 weeks old, are largely weaned by 7-8 weeks of age, and should be completely weaned by the time they are 8-10 weeks old. (Sometimes kittens and mom will continue to nurse after that age, but it's not nutritionally necessary.) Some will wean sooner, but kittens should remain with the mom until at least 8 weeks of age for socialization and optimal health.

If you have a litter of kittens with their mom (or without), you can introduce solid food around 5-6 weeks of age by providing wet food mixed with kitten milk replacer (KMR) or a little water. You can purchase this milk replacer at a local pet store. You will want the food/milk replacement to be the consistency of gravy at first.

Gradually decrease the amount of milk in the wet food. You can add some harder kibbles around seven weeks of age, as the wet food will soften the hard food and get the kittens used to the thicker constancy and flavor of the kibble.

If you're bringing your kitten home already on solid food—whether wet food, hard kibble, or a combination—keep them on the same brand and flavor for a few weeks as they adjust to their new home. If your kitten has diarrhea, bring them to see a veterinarian right away. Don’t just assume that this is something all kittens deal with, as this can be a sign of a serious health condition. Once your kitten is settled and has had a health check with the veterinarian, you can consider a food change.


Kitten Nutrition Myths—Debunked!

Before we move on, let’s do some myth-busting.

Some of the most common myths about kitten nutrition are as follows:

  • pet hospitalYou should give kittens milk. After eight weeks, kittens do not need milk, and you should NOT provide them with milk as their bodies stop producing the enzymes necessary to digest it. (Cats become lactose intolerant as they get older.) Additionally, our milk substitutes are not suitable for cats & kittens, and both milk and (non feline) milk substitutes can make them very sick. If you want to give your kitten a "milk" treat, make sure you purchase a suitably formulated product (like KMR or Whiskas Cat Milk) from a pet store.
  • Cats love fish, but most cats and kittens are sensitive to fish. While fish is one of the most common allergies in cats, it's by no means universal. If you think your cat may be allergic or sensitive to fish, you will want to eliminate it from your cat’s diet. Luckily, most cats suffer no ill effects from fish-based cat foods.
  • Kittens don’t need soft food once they are adults. Both kittens and adult cats can benefit tremendously from daily wet food. Cats that have food with higher moisture have less risk of kidney disease. Wet food also has fewer carbohydrates and can help with weight loss.
  • If you don't have kitten food, puppy food is okay. This is false! Cats are obligate carnivores, so they need more protein in their food (and far less vegetable matter) than puppies. Additionally, their food must contain the amino acid taurine, as well as several others. Therefore, it's important to feed your kitten food that's formulated specifically for kittens so they get the right amounts of protein, fats, vitamins & minerals, amino acids, and more. (Adult cat food is similarly not appropriate for kittens - nutritional requirements change with age!)


Kitten Feeding Schedules

Next you’ll need to decide if you will free feed your kitten or set a schedule. Cats are natural hunters, and you will want to keep this in mind when you choose what works best for you and your kitten.

Additionally, because young kittens require a huge amount of fat and protein for proper growth and because their bellies are so small, they need to eat multiple times a day. It's recommended that until your kitten reaches 4-6 months of age they have access to dry kibble at all times (free fed) and scheduled portions of wet food a couple of times a day (or more). Once they reach about 6 months, you can start putting them on a feeding schedule.

Here are a few ideas for feeding schedules once your kitten reaches about 6 months of age.


Free-Feeding Schedule - Dry Kibble

If you are free-feeding, leave a food bowl out at all times, and fill it as soon as it empties.

Pros: It is convenient for you and your kitten, and you don’t have to worry about your kitten getting hungry in the middle of the night and waking you up.

Cons: You won’t know how much your kitten is eating, and this can be important to know when discussing your kitten’s growth with their veterinarian. The chances of your kitten becoming overweight increase significantly when you free feed. (We don't actually recommend this method, though we recognize that it can sometimes be unavoidable.)


Hybrid Feeding Schedule - Dry Kibble and Wet Food

A dry kibble and a wet food hybrid feeding schedule can help keep cats from becoming overweight while allowing your kitten to get the much-needed hydration. Place a measured amount of dry food in a bowl once a day, and let your kitten eat as much as they want. Replace the dry kibble with wet food for a portion of their meal. You can feed your kitten dry food during the day and wet at night or vice versa. Your kitten should eat the wet food within an hour of you giving it to them to reduce the risk of it attracting insects and food spoilage. Replace the wet food with the dry kibble once an hour has passed.

Pros: Kitten will get the extra hydration from the wet food and still have access to the dry food. With the measured amount, you will know your kitten’s food intake if you need to discuss it with their veterinarian.

Cons: If your kitten eats all the food, they may cry for more. You can adjust the feeding schedule to night time to help avoid this problem.


Hunting Schedule - Dry Kibble Or Wet Food

A mighty hunterA hunting schedule is beneficial for those highly active kittens that need to have extra stimulation by channeling their natural instincts. With regular feeding, you will place your kitten’s food in the same location, but you will move the food around for hunting. Hiding food also reduces boredom feeding when cats get older. You will need multiple bowls for food. For dry food, you can divide up the amount of food for the day and place it in multiple bowls in safe locations for your kitten to find them. Never remove food as your kitten is eating; wait for them to finish and walk away before removing the bowl. Change up the locations frequently. If you are using wet food, remember to remove it within an hour of placing out for your kitten.

Pros: This stimulates the kitten’s instincts and keeps them active and in good shape. You can also use this training method to teach them where you want them to go or not go.

Cons: For little spaces, this can be difficult. It can also take time to think of places to put the food and to make sure that your kitten can get to the food.


How to Make a Transition From Kitten Food

Kittens can be picky eaters and finding food that they will like sometimes can be challenging. Transitioning food should be done very slowly, as kittens have sensitive stomachs, and the change can cause diarrhea. You should seek veterinary care if your kitten has diarrhea.

The best way to transition food for picky eaters is to have around five days worth of the old food for your kitten. When you take a scoop of food out of the old food to feed your kitten, replace it with the same amount of the new food. Stir it up, and repeat every time you feed. Feeding this way will marry the two smells together for those picky eaters and allow for a nice smooth transition. When you don’t see much of the old food, you can combine the two bags. If the food looks similar, it should take about two weeks for this process and your kitten to acclimate to the new food.

For wet food, open a can of the old food, and replace ⅛ with the new wet food. Don’t mix, as you’ll want to know if your kitten likes the new food. If your kitten likes the new food, you can continue with the transition. Keep the change going slowly, and allow about 5-7 days for your kitten to adjust. Add a little more of the new food each day. You can add variety to their wet food, but don’t introduce new flavors until your kitten has had the current flavor for a couple of weeks.


Some Miscellaneous Kitten Nutrition Tips

Always have fresh water for your kitten in a clean bowl. Some cats love moving water, making a fountain an excellent option for a water bowl. Getting a kitten used to a water fountain when they are young helps entice them to drink.

Don’t be afraid to give treats! Providing treats is a great way to bond with your kitten, primarily when you use them for training. Treats should be less than 10% of their diet. If you have questions, follow the instructions on the bag. Treats are higher calorie than their "regular" food.

Kittens should remain on kitten food until they are around one year of age when they transition to adult food. Cats do well on adult food for most of their lives, but you should discuss with your veterinarian when your cat should switch to a senior formula.


How to Tell If Your Kitten Or Cat Is Overweight

It is vital to keep your cat at a healthy weight to prevent health conditions like diabetes and arthritis. You can talk to your veterinarian about what other health risks your kitten may have.

Your cat's body structure is very sleek and will almost be a straight line from shoulder to hip, with a slight indent at the waist. You should not be able to see your cat’s ribs or hips protruding. If you do, increase your cat’s calorie intake. Your cat should have an uptick in their abdomen, although some indoor cats develop a “pooch” in this area. This pooch is usually due to a lack of horizontal movement and decreased activity as they age. Because cats have different body structures, some will have a healthy body weight at 5 lbs and others at maybe 15+lbs. Regular check-ups with your veterinarian to discuss the appropriate weight for your cat are essential for longevity and quality of life.


If you have any more questions about how to get your kitten on the path to wellness through good nutrition, please don’t hesitate to give us a call!


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