Kittens and young cats are particularly susceptible to nutritional imbalances and feeding errors. Newborns survive entirely on their mother’s milk for the first 3 or 4 weeks of their lives, assuming that their mother is healthy and producing enough milk to satisfy her litter. Kittens will also start drinking water during this time. Dietary composition and habits established after weaning are largely responsible for a cat’s continuing health. Dogs and cats have very different nutritional requirements; cat owners should familiarize themselves with the unique nutritional requirements of the feline. Cats, for example, need much more protein and fat in their diets than dogs. Unlike dogs, cats must have the essential amino acid, taurine, in their diet every day. Cats can’t synthesize sufficient amounts of taurine to meet their metabolic needs, and they also excrete unusually high levels of taurine in the form of bile. Fortunately, high-quality commercial diets make it easy to feed growing kittens a nutritious, well-balanced diet.
The first 2 weeks of a kitten’s life are critical to its growth and development. The first 36 hours of life are especially important, because that is when the mother’s milk contains colostrum. Colostrum is vital to the transfer of passive immunity from the mother to her babies. It contains maternal antibodies, which are absorbed in the kitten’s intestines and provide protection against a number of infectious diseases. Neonates should nurse at least 6 to 8 times a day. Preferably, they should nurse virtually all the time they are awake.
Kittens usually start to be weaned off their mother’s milk between 3 and 4 weeks of age. The owner should start by offering the litter semi-solid food in the form of a gruel made of a high-quality commercial kitten food and warm water, or alternatively a canned food specifically formulated for young growing kittens. Cow’s milk should not be fed, because it can cause diarrhea due to its high lactose content. By 6 weeks of age, kittens should have their baby (deciduous) teeth, and they can be transitioned over several days to dry food or a mixture of kibble and canned food. Most kittens are nutritionally weaned by 6 weeks, although many queens let their kitties nurse for several more weeks. Kittens should be fully weaned behaviorally and nutritionally by eight weeks of age.
Young Growing Cats
After weaning, all cats should be fed a high-quality, calorie-rich, protein-dense diet that is specifically formulated for kittens and nutritionally sufficient for growth, or labeled for all stages of life, according to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). Kittens need lots more protein and calories per pound of body weight than do adult cats. By twelve weeks, a kitten’s energy requirements can reach three times that of their adult counterparts. Correct calcium and phosphorous ratios are especially important in kittens and must be kept within strict ranges in order to avoid excesses or deficiencies of those minerals, which can cause bone deformities. If an AAFCO-approved growth diet is fed, young cats should not need any vitamin, mineral or other nutritional supplements.
Cats can become habituated to a single food or flavor of food, especially early in life. Kittens that are exclusively fed one food may refuse to eat anything else. Some of these cats will choose to starve rather than switch to a different diet. To avoid this problem, many authorities recommend exposing kittens to a variety of foods, flavors and textures, preferably before they reach six months of age. Nutritional deficiencies and excesses are also less likely to occur in cats fed a varied diet, which is an added benefit of this feeding approach. New foods should be introduced gradually, to prevent digestive disturbances.
How Much, And How Often?
Label recommendations on cat food packaging about how much and how often to feed growing cats are useful guidelines. However, they should not be relied upon exclusively when feeding kittens. An individual kitten’s activity level, health status and intestinal parasite load, together with the quality and composition of the diet, all impact the appropriate amount of food that should be fed. Keeping an eye on normal weight gain and physical development is the best way to determine whether a growing kitten is well-nourished. Cats are natural nibblers and prefer to eat many small meals throughout the day. Most breeders suggest that juvenile cats be fed as much as they will eat, either 3 or 4 times a day, or better yet free choice. Excessive growth and obesity from overeating are normally not problems in young cats.
A cat’s growth tapers off at about 6 months of age and basically levels off between 8 and 10 months, when it becomes sexually mature. However, cats are not truly adults until they reach one year of age. People differ on what they think is the appropriate age to transition a cat from kitten to adult food. Most recommendations range between 6 and 12 months. Neutering can reduce a cat’s metabolism by 25% or more, so owners who neuter their kittens at a very young age should check with their veterinarian about dietary management.