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Feeding Kittens: 101

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Feeding your kitten a proper diet will ensure he stays healthy. Magone/iStock/ThinkStock|Feeding your kitten a proper diet will ensure he stays healthy. Magone/iStock/ThinkStock|

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I brought home my first kitten, Fluffy, when I was 5 years old, and I’m grateful that my surprised mom not only let me let me keep her, but also showed me how to take care of her. This began a lifetime of me living with cats.

An important part of caring for a kitten is feeding her a proper diet, and there’s more to it than simply slinging some cat food into a dish and calling it a day.

Is Meat A Must?

Because their digestive tracks are short, kittens cannot fully digest and use the nutrients in plants, and it’s difficult for them to get enough protein from plants to survive. They also need taurine, an amino acid primarily found in animal muscle tissue. For those reasons, it’s important to feed cats a meat-based diet (read here about how much to feed your kitten).

At 5, I had no idea what a carnivore was, but I certainly noticed that Fluffy loved to hunt, kill and eat small animals. She was a meat eater, and she generously delivered skillfully dissected parts to the welcome mat, which she must have thought was like the table placemat for our home.

“Cats are obligate carnivores so they MUST have animal-source ingredients to meet their nutritional needs,” says Julie Churchill, DVM, director of nutrition services at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.

Choosing A Food

Your kitten probably will be weaned completely from her mother’s milk by 8 weeks old.

As she weans, transition her to a nutritionally complete and balanced diet.

Experts recommend choosing a food from a reputable manufacturer that uses the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Cat Food Nutrient Profiles. Nutrient profiles are broken down into two life stages:

  • Growth and Reproduction
  • Adult Maintenance

If a pet food meets all requirements for both categories, it’s considered nutritionally adequate for all life stages.

Pet food that meets the AFFCO requirements will say this on the cat food label: “[Name of product] is formulated to meet the nutritional levels established by the AAFCO (Dog/Cat) Food Nutrient Profiles for (life stage).”

Manufacturers also can test its products using AAFCO Dog and Cat Food Feeding Trial Protocols. If a product passes an animal feeding trial using AAFCO feeding protocols, the label will say: “Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [name of product] provides complete and balanced nutrition for (life stage).”

If the label says, “This product is intended for intermittent or supplemental feeding only,” this is more of a snack, treat or supplement, and is unnecessary when a kitten is eating a complete and balanced diet.

Feeding Styles

Watching a kitten’s bursts of activity and explosive growth makes it easy to understand why they prefer to eat more frequent meals and have higher requirements than adult cats when it comes to protein, amino acids, minerals and some vitamins. Kittens also have smaller tummies, so three to four small meals a day can benefit kittens, especially if they are not spayed or neutered. But frequent meals needn’t be a burden for owners.

Very young kittens can eat free choice, or owners can meal feed. While free feeding makes it much easier on us, some benefits of meal feeding are being able to control the amount your kitten is consuming to prevent overeating and obesity, and in multi-kitten households, you know who’s eating what and when. With so many options, you can develop the best fit for your goals and lifestyle.

An example of meal feeding might be providing a small meal when you first get up in the morning, a second small meal before leaving for school or work, a third when you return home in the afternoon or early evening, and a fourth before you go to bed. If that sounds like more work than you want to do, you might want to use an automatic feeder that provides a measured amount of food at timed intervals during the day. This way you’re setting it up once a day and your kitten still gets the benefit of controlled and frequent portions.

A spayed or neutered kitten generally experiences a drop in energy level necessitating nutritional changes, which can be made by adjusting food portions or feeding frequency. Your veterinarian is a great resource for help any time adjustments need to be made.

Wet, Dry Or A Little Of Each

Unless your kitten has underlying conditions, feeding canned food, dry kitten food or a combination of both is an individual preference.

“There’s not one best food or one food for life,” Churchill says. “You’re finding the right fit for now.”

Canned foods can be more expensive on a per-calorie basis, and some people don’t want to feed wet because it’s stinky or requires frequent cleaning of dishes, says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, associate professor of clinical nutrition at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis. High-moisture food, however, might discourage overeating by making kittens feel fuller sooner, she adds, and helps kittens get extra water in them.

Kibble often is considered more convenient and cost effective, but it’s also easier for humans to overfeed dry foods and for kittens to overeat.

“Younger cats are notorious for picking one diet, so I encourage exposing kittens to a variety of diets and textures, so they are more open to variety if they require a special diet later on if health issues crop up,” Larsen says.

Body Condition

It’s important to monitor your kitten’s body weight, condition and appearance, and to adjust food accordingly. To make sure your kitten is at her ideal body weight and condition, there are body composition charts you can use, and your vet can help you identify where your kitten falls on the chart and what to look for between visits.

Take my last kitten, Tripper, for example. When I looked down at Tripper, I easily could see the indent of his waist behind his ribs. When I felt his sides with my hands, his ribs were easy to feel with very little fat over them. Before he was neutered, Tripper’s abdominal fat pad was tucked up, and after the procedure, he had a slightly hanging fat pad that I kept an eye on to make sure he wasn’t gaining excess weight.

Avoid Obesity

We humans share our struggles with excess weight and obesity with our pets. In fact, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention’s 2013 National Pet Obesity Awareness Day Survey found that about 57.6 percent of cats in the United States are overweight or obese. So getting to know our kittens’ bodies greatly helps in managing their diets and ideal body composition throughout their lives.

“Reversing obesity in cats is very difficult the younger they are when they start putting on the excess weight,” Larsen says.

It may be fun to feed your new kitten treats, but beware of overfeeding.

“Treats, including chewables, supplements and fish oil, all contain calories,” says Maryanne Murphy, DVM, a clinical nutrition veterinarian at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in New Jersey. “About 90 percent of your kitten’s calories should be balanced nutrition. The other 10 percent can be treats; just watch the calories.”

Churchill recommends food puzzles as great ways for kittens to engage their natural instincts to hunt or search for food. This benefits their mental and physical health when regularly engaged this way, she says.

“Because indoor kittens are at very high risk for weight gain and obesity, any way we can create a rich environment that encourages activity and fitness to provide plenty of exercise, hand in hand with proper food, will ensure our kittens can maintain lean, fit bodies,” Churchill says.

And don’t forget to provide plenty of fresh water to keep kitty healthy!


By: Sandy Chebat