Kittens have very specific dietary needs in order to grow into healthy, active adult cats. As carnivores, all cats need more protein than many other pets, but kittens also require a variety of nutrients to provide energy for growth and development.
Dr. Deb Zoran, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, has advice for kitten owners on choosing acceptable diets for kittens.
At birth, kittens rely on their mother for everything, especially nutritious milk. If a kitten is separated from its mother, it needs a suitable milk replacement.
Zoran said the best option is to find a foster queen, which is a different mother cat who will accept and feed the orphaned kitten. If this is not possible, commercial kitten milk replacers are the next best option.
“Cows, goats, dogs, or other milk sources may actually induce diarrhea and won’t have the needed nutrients, especially amino acids, that kittens need–they are very different from other species,” Zoran said.
After a kitten is about 2 to 3 weeks old, owners can start looking for the signs that a kitten is ready to begin the transition to solid food.
“Most kittens can start to eat small amounts of wet food after their eyes are open and they are starting to move around well on their own,” Zoran said.
Until the kittens are about 4 weeks old and weigh at least a pound, they will still need the milk or milk replacer in addition to any wet food.
“The wet food can be introduced by placing small amounts on a plate or saucer. It needs to be warm, not hot; cold foods do not have a good odor and are less likely to be accepted,” Zoran said.
She also suggests pureeing wet food at first and gradually offering it in a more solid form.
“Dry kibble should not be offered until kittens are at least 6 weeks of age and should not be fed as the sole food,” Zoran said. “Wet food has more protein and more water, both of which are very important for young kittens.”
Once a kitten is fully weaned from milk, Zoran advises choosing a kitten food with more than 50 percent protein and less than 10 percent carbohydrates. She said that kittens can develop diarrhea if they are fed a poor quality food or a food with too many carbohydrates.
Looking at the first five ingredients on the label can help owners determine whether a food has too many carbohydrates; the ingredients on a label are listed by weight, so those listed first are present in the greatest amounts.
An appropriate kitten diet should not have a carbohydrate source listed in the first five ingredients, but, instead, should have water and protein sources, according to Zoran.
The name of a kitten food can also help with determining if it is a good option. For example, Zoran said a food named “chicken and rice” would indicate that it is high in carbohydrates.
In addition, she said, “The food should say on the label that it is complete and balanced for all life stages or for growth.”
Although providing a good diet is only one aspect of caring for a kitten, it is a very important one that sets a kitten up for a long, healthy life. With good nutrition, a kitten will quickly grow from a sleepy newborn to a strong, playful young adult cat.
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