Greetings kitten lovers! Skye Blake here discovering answers to questions about food for your kittens.
Let’s look at the nutrition kittens need to be sure they’re getting the right food…
- What Nutrients Do Kittens Need?
- Breeds & Kitten Nutrition
- Nutritional Deficiencies – No Joke
- Kitten Food – Newborn to 4 Weeks
- Kitten Food – Weaning (4-8 Weeks)
- How to Introduce a New Food
- Kitten Food – 2-12 Months
- Hunting – Learning From Mom
- More About Cat Nutrition & Food
- Related Pages of Interest
- List of Sources
What Nutrients Do Kittens Need?
Let’s start by understanding what kittens need, not only to survive, but to support their explosive growth and energy.
A growing kitten is a complex combination of nutrition, genetics, regulation of hormones, and environmental influences.
From birth to 6 months, a kitten’s nutritional needs change dramatically.
Kittens at all stages need protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in proper amounts for every stage of growth during their first year.
“A general rule of thumb in kittens is that they typically gain about 1 pound per month.
Often, a kitten’s weight is about 1 pound at 1 month (4 weeks), 2 pounds at 2 months (8 weeks), and so on until about 4-5 months.
Kittens do most of their growing (both height and weight) within the first year and then stabilize from there.
Nutrients affect their skin, fur, bones, organs, nervous, immune, and other systems, hormones, energy, and ability to thrive.
This makes it very important to feed only food made for kittens, never puppy or dog food, or even adult cat food.
And please, no people food!
None of these have the right balance of vitamins and minerals or enough protein or calories for kittens.
If kittens are given an unbalanced, incomplete diet, either store-bought or homemade, they get serious medical problems, like bone deformities or neurological problems.
But don’t make the mistake of giving vitamin or mineral supplements without a veterinarian’s guidance.
You can easily give too much, which is just as bad as not giving enough.
Breeds & Kitten Nutrition
Kittens of larger breeds like Maine Coons, need special nutrition until they’re 18 months to 2 years old.
They take longer than other breeds to mature, so kitten food is needed longer for the best development of these breeds.
Kittens who don’t get good quality nutrition won’t grow to the normal breed size.
Talk to reputable breeders and/or your vet about the special needs of these breeds.
Nutritional Deficiencies – No Joke
Many people understand that not having enough vitamins and minerals in a diet causes serious growth and health problems for people, but it’s also true for cats.
Having too much of any vitamin or mineral can do the same, causing serious problems.
Here are a few examples of what can happen if kittens aren’t given the right foods in the right proportions…
“The job of Vitamin D is to regulate blood calcium levels to build and maintain strong teeth and bones.
It is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means fat soaks it up.
Too little means weak and rubbery bones, and too much means problems with nerve function and blood clotting.”2 “How Does Too Much or Too Little Vitamin D Affect Cats? (Vet-Approved)” by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, petful.com, January 15, 2019
If there’s not enough thiamine in a kitten’s diet, the nervous system is badly affected.
Kittens, as well as adult cats, will eat less and possibly start drooling a lot.
Kittens won’t grow very well and can have weakness, stumbling instead of walking, and even convulsions.
Some other possible nutritional problems that can end up killing kittens (and adult cats) are lack of potassium, taurine, or vitamin E.
As you can see, nutrition is complex… balance is the key to good health and growth in kittens!
For more about feline nutritional deficiencies, check out “Nutritional Deficiencies in Cats” (Tufts University)
Kitten Food – Newborn to 4 Weeks
Kittens in the first few months of life have special needs that require round-the-clock attention and care.
Newborn kittens get all their critical nutrients from mom for the first four weeks of life, so her proper feeding is very important for everyone.
Usually queens (pregnant) and dams (nursing females) are fed complete and balanced kitten food because they need the high calories and protein.
Always talk to your vet about your cat’s specific medical situation and nutritional needs and don’t assume you’re feeding correctly.
During this time, kittens should gain weight at a rate of 10-15 grams a day.
At about 4 weeks old, mother cats start the weaning process and bring food for the kittens to eat.
Feeding a Newborn Kitten When Mama Can’t
If you have one or more newborn kittens that have no mother available to feed them, they must be bottle fed by people to survive.
If you find yourself in this situation and you’re not experienced in dealing with what newborn kittens need, keep them warm and get them to a vet or emergency vet hospital immediately.
Kittens are delicate and can die quickly without proper care.
They must be bottle fed every two hours with kitten formula if another mother cat isn’t available to nurse them.
Once you’ve gotten them to a vet and have discussed what’s needed, if you commit to taking care of them yourself (and yes, it’s a lot of work), follow your vet’s instructions.
Here are some helpful resources…
“Bottle Feeding” by Hannah Shaw, Kitten Lady, 2020
“Homemade Kitten Milk Formula Recipes And How to Bottle Feed a Newborn Kitten” by Franny Syufy, Reviewed by Petal Smart, VMD, thesprucepets.com, updated on 02/07/22
Kitten Food – Weaning (4-8 Weeks)
Kittens begin transitioning from mother’s milk to soft solid food (mushy canned meals specially made for kittens) at between 28 and 50 days old (about 4-6 weeks).
It’s usually a gradual process where kittens discover the new food by stepping in mom’s food and licking it off their paws or by someone smearing a bit on their little noses.
If the mother is a hunter, she’ll usually start eating prey in front of them around this time, and they start eating with her at about 6 weeks.
They also still nurse from mom until about 6 weeks of age when they start either hunting their own food or eating commercial wet and dry food.
If kittens aren’t introduced to a variety of foods, whether by their mother’s prey choices or humans giving them different meals, they can become very picky and only want those 1 or 2 foods they had at the beginning.
This can be a problem later in life when their choices of food may not be available, or they develop a medical condition requiring certain prescription diets (kidney disease is a good example).
Talk about picky eaters!
My fellow felines will starve themselves to death before eating something that doesn’t appeal to them.
How to Introduce a New Food
When introducing a new food, you have to start by mixing a small amount of the new with the old, gradually adding a higher ratio of new to old.
This gives your kitten time to accept the new as part of what he already likes.
Cats choose food by smell and texture, unlike humans who choose by smell, sight, taste and memory.
If your kitten refuses a food, it’s probably because he didn’t like the smell or, if he tasted it, the texture was unappealing.
It’s simple, if we don’t like it, we won’t eat it!
Kitten Food – 2-12 Months
Once weaning is done, your vet will most likely recommend continuing to feed kitten food, adjusting calories and quantities as needed for your specific kitten.
You can work with your kitten’s texture and taste preferences and use either dry or wet kitten food, or a combination of the two.
Just be sure you’re not exceeding the daily caloric intake so you’re not creating a fat cat!
Dry food can be left out all day for them until 4-6 months old when they can change to eating a few times a day.
Kittens can usually change to adult food at about 9 to 12 months old, according to your vet’s recommendation.
Larger breed kittens are usually not changed to adult food until 18 months to 2 years old… check with your breeder or vet.
Hunting – Learning From Mom
By about 6-8 weeks they’ve begun learning to hunt from their mother.
This behavior is normally completely learned between 6 and 20 weeks of age.
Kittens only learn how to effectively hunt and kill prey from their mother, even though all cats have the instinct to hunt.
Just watch them play!
Kittens who aren’t taught to hunt during this age usually don’t know how when they’re older.
The few cats who manage to learn it later have a harder time and are awkward in their attempts.
We’ve all seen cute kittens instinctively play at hunting, pouncing and catching things, but they have to learn the kill (nape) bite from their mother.
They also hunt the same prey that their mother hunts.
Kittens who don’t learn how to finish and kill prey from their mother usually don’t ever learn it.
If you’ve ever seen your cat play with a mouse but not kill it, looking like she doesn’t know what to do with it, she never learned how.
Associating the killed prey with food to eat is another learned behavior.
Once a cat no longer has to kill and eat prey (typically because the food now comes from a human), these skills can be forgotten.
Kittens who are raised with mice or rats normally won’t hunt them, since they were socialized together.
However, if they were raised with them along with other kittens, they might hunt them anyway.
More About Cat Nutrition & Food
Now that you’ve learned a bit about kitten nutrition, discover more at “The Best Kitten Food” and other related pages…
Related Pages of Interest
Sources used on this website are either primary or secondary.
Primary sources are always preferable and have the most reliable information because they’re original and directly referenced.
Scientific abstracts and data are good examples of primary sources.
Secondary sources are weaker because they usually consist of opinions or articles that give no sources of their own. Sometimes they refer to primary sources.
When I use secondary sources, most are those with some authority, such as veterinarian or cat behaviorist books and articles.
List of Sources
“5 Tips On Proper Nutrition For Your Pregnant Cat” by Lisa Selvaggio, PetGuide, August 14, 2014
77 Things to Know Before Getting a Cat by Susan M. Ewing, Fox Chapel Publishers, Ltd., 2018, pp. 79-95
A-Z of Cat Diseases & Health Problems by Bradley Viner, Bvet Med MRCVS, Howell Book House, a Simon & Schuster/Macmillan™ Company, New York, NY, 1998, pp. 53-57, 61, 72, 74, 103-4, 110-11, 214-18
The American Animal Hospital Association Encyclopedia of Cat Health and Care, Executive Committee with Les Sussman, Alan Dubowy, DVM, The Philip Lief Group, Inc., Hearst Books, NY, 1994, 35, 62-66, 144, 149, 165-69, 180, 223-4, 238
Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook by Delbert G. Carlson, DVM & James M. Giffin, MD, Howell Book House, New York, NY, 1995, pp. 345-354, 386-7
“A Cautionary Tale of Nutrition“, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine (tufts.edu), August 30, 2022
“Complete Guide to Feeding Kittens” by Amanda Simonson, DVM, PetMD, February 11, 2021
The Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies by the editors of Prevention Pets™ Books, Rodale Press, Inc., Emmaus, PA, 1996, pp. 181-184, 192-194
Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Secrets to the Natural Health of Dogs & Cats by Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, PhD, and Susan Hubble Pitcairn, Rodale, New York, NY, 2005, pp. 3-118
“Feeding a Kitten: Kitten Food Types and Schedule“, webmd.com, 2009
“Feeding the Pregnant Cat” by Krista Williams, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM, VCA Animal Hospitals
“Feeding Your Cat“, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, July 2017
“Feeding Your Cat: Know the Basics of Feline Nutrition” by Lisa A. Pierson, DVM, CatInfo.org, Updated Nov 2016
Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians by Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, MS, Dept. of Small Animal Medicine & Surgery, College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University, W.B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1992, p. 103, 109, 171-186, 189-191
The Holistic Cat: A Complete Guide to Natural Health Care by Holly Mash, The Crowood Press Ltd., Ramsey, Marlborough, Wiltshire, England, 2014, pp. 60-61, 78-81, 99-115
“Homemade Kitten Milk Formula Recipes And How to Bottle Feed a Newborn Kitten” by Franny Syufy, Reviewed by Petal Smart, VMD, thesprucepets.com, updated on February 7, 1922
“How Does Too Much or Too Little Vitamin D Affect Cats? (Vet-Approved)” by Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, petful.com, January 15, 2019
“How To Start Your Kitten On A Raw Diet – The Ultimate Guide” by Paws of Prey, YouTube, March 16, 2021
“Key nutrients for kittens“, Royal Canin
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Cats by Angela Rixon, Quarto Publishing, 2020 Edition published by Chartwell Books, New York, NY
The Merck/Merial Manual for Pet Health, Home Edition, Cynthia M. Kahn, BA, MA, Editor, Scott Line, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACVB, Associate Editor, with Editorial Board, Merck & Co., Inc., Whitehouse Station, NJ, 2007, pp. 337, 440, 453, 493, 1058, 1194, 1246
Natural Cat Care by Celeste Yarnall, Ph.D., Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. & Castle Books, Division of Book Sales Inc., Edison, NJ, 2000, pp. 47-102
Natural Health Care for Your Cat by Dr. Rudolf Deiser, Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY, 1997, pp. 12-15, 106-7
“Nutrition Basics for Your Kitten: What You Should Know” Vetstreet, January 27, 2015
“Nutritional Deficiencies in Cats” – Tufts Catnip, Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, October 19, 2015
“Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats” by National Research Council (Author), Division on Earth and Life Studies (Author), & 3 more
“Nutrition & Nutritional Disorders” – Veterinary Pediatrics: Dogs and Cats from Birth to Six Months by Johnny D. Hoskins, DVM, PhD, Professor, Veterinary Clinical Medicine, Louisiana State University, School of Veterinary Medicine, W.B. Saunders Company, a Division of Harcourt Brace & Company, Philadelphia, PA, 1995, 2nd edition, pp. 511-524
“Pet Food Decisions: How Do You Pick Your Pet’s Food?” by Lisa M. Freeman, DVM, PhD, DACVIM (Nutrition), Clinical Nutrition Service, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University, Petfoodology, Dec 16, 2019
Updated January 9, 2023