Nutrition Basics for Your Kitten: What You Should Know

Kitten Eating
Did you know that cats require taurine, an amino acid present only in animal tissue? That's why they're obligate carnivores.

Your kitten weighed only a few ounces at birth. He'll put on about 2 pounds in the next 10 weeks and continue to gain weight rapidly until he's about 6 or 7 months of age. After that, he'll continue to gain more slowly until about 11 months of age; his female littermates will grow until they are 9 to 10 months of age. Food fuels not only his growth, but also his energetic play.

Kittens start eating solid food — or, actually, soft food — at about 4 weeks old. A meat-based canned kitten food is ideal for this time. They're still drinking their mother's milk at this age and will typically continue to nurse as well as eat kitten food until about 5 or 6 weeks of age.

After weaning, kittens do best on a diet formulated for kittens. Kitten food is more nutrient dense, supplying calories and nutrients in smaller amounts, easier for little stomachs to hold. Avoid adult cat diets labeled for maintenance; they don't have the higher protein and fat content that kittens need. A dry kitten food should have about 35 percent protein and 12 to 24 percent fat content; canned food will appear to have less because it is diluted with water.

Don't feed a kitten puppy or dog food. Unlike a dog, a cat is an obligate carnivore, and her body cannot obtain some of the essential nutrients from the vegetable-based ingredients in dog foods. Cats have a higher minimum requirement for protein in their food than do dogs, and they also require some nutrients that dogs don't necessarily need in their food. For example, cats and kittens require taurine, an amino acid present only in animal tissue, in order to maintain cardiovascular and visual health.

Although cats are carnivores, that doesn't mean you should feed them just meat. Doing so can lead to nutritional imbalances. Quality commercial cat foods are supplemented to provide optimal nutrition for your kitten. So simply feeding a diet of meat is inadequate. Rapidly growing kittens are especially susceptible to these nutritional imbalances. Nor should you feed lots of fish, which can cause a condition called steatitis (or yellow fat disease). Don't add vitamin or mineral supplements to a complete and balanced diet. Doing so has been known to cause severe medical problems in kittens.

You'll want to introduce dry food (perhaps softened at first by moistening it with water) so that your cat will be familiar with both dry and wet foods. In fact, you can offer a variety of foods and flavors to hopefully encourage your cat to be more accepting of novel foods as an adult. But don't go overboard catering to your kitten's demands; you don't want to encourage a finicky eater! And don't switch the entire meal from one food to another, as this can cause gastric upset. Just introduce small bits of various flavors as adjuncts to the meal.

Because of the kitten's small stomach, it's best to divide his food into three or four small meals a day. You can switch to twice-a-day feeding around 6 months, but some older cats also prefer small, frequent meals. Let young kittens eat as much as they want; they will almost certainly not become overweight. You can free feed as long as other pets don't eat all of the food and you leave out only dry food. Young kittens need a lot of calories for their size.

Most kittens are naturally slender, but if your kitten is overly bony or pot bellied, contact your veterinarian. Parasites and other medical conditions should be ruled out first, but if the problem points to your kitten's diet, get your veterinarian's opinion on the best diet for your kitten. An occasional missed meal is no cause for concern, but if your kitten goes several hours without eating (especially a kitten less than 8 weeks old) or is vomiting and has diarrhea at the same time, consult your veterinarian.

The coat and skin should look healthy, and your kitten should be energetic. The stools should be firm, well-formed, and brown in color. If your cat is underweight, seems tired or "quiet," or has poor skin and coat condition or loose stools, see your veterinarian.

Your kitten should always have access to fresh water. You can give your kitten milk occasionally, but it is not necessary. Also, the enzymes necessary for digesting milk decline shortly after weaning, so some kittens may develop diarrhea from it.

Don't leave wet food out, as it can quickly go bad. Store food in a cool place, and don't buy more dry food than you can use in a few weeks.

At around 9 to 12 months of age, change your kitten to adult food. Make the switch gradually, mixing a little more of the adult food with the kitten food over several days. If you leave your cat on kitten food for too long, he could gain too much weight.

What your kitten eats in his first year of life helps form the foundation for a lifetime of good nutrition, so be sure to feed a quality kitten diet to help him on his way to healthy adulthood.

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