Feline species are considered obligate carnivores, which means that unlike dogs or humans, cats can only derive essential aspects of their diet from meat. While recent research is suggesting that house cats may be far better at metabolizing carbohydrates and plant-based proteins than their more ferocious cousins, a good source of animal protein will always be the most important element of your cat’s diet, from kittenhood through old-age.
Kittens need the most protein during the weaning stage and maintain relatively high requirements throughout their growth. Always look for good sources of whole protein to headline the ingredients list. Ideally, the top three-ingredient should be human-grade, fatty animals proteins, such as poultry, fish, and chicken liver.
Be wary of meat by-products or substitutes. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with chicken or salmon broth, if it’s listed as the second or third ingredient, it’s negligible weight means there’s going to be a whole lot broth in your kitten’s food than whole meat. The same goes for meat meals.
Putting a percentage on exactly how much protein your kitten should eat can be tricky, for two reasons. First, every cat is different, and kittens destined to become larger, more active cats may have higher requirements. Protein percentages can appear different depending on the moisture content of foods. While fresh chicken will have a much lower protein concentration than a bowl of dry kibble (thanks to its high water content), it will likely be more nutritious and digestible in terms of amino acids and macronutrients.
In general, look for kitten foods with 15-30 percent minimum crude or ‘as-fed’ protein, or 35-50 percent on a dry matter basis. When converting from as-fed to dry matter, nutrient concentrations will increase, while the weight will decrease. Here’s an in-depth explainer on how to convert as fed protein amounts in wet food to dry matter percentages.
All cats love fat. It’s a concentrated source of energy and carries many of the most essential vitamins and compounds. Omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids are often quoted as the most desirable of these fatty acids, thanks to their role in developing and maintaining brain, eye, and nervous system health.
Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one omega-3 fatty acid particularly crucial to kitten development. Found in fish meat and oils, DHA enhances cognitive function and is associated with an improved inflammatory response. As a result, look for fish oil supplementation even in non-fish flavored kitten food options.
We’d recommend feeding you kitten foods with a 4-10 percent fat content as-fed basis, or 15-30 percent in terms of dry matter. While well-sourced fats are great, even kittens are capable of consuming more energy than they spend.
‘Grain-free’ is one of today’s most popular marketing claims across the pet food industry. It’s great that more cats have access to food that’s not stuffed with low-value ingredients, but at the same time, it’s critical that owners don’t take ‘grain-free’ as a synonym for health.
Unfortunately, there are major food brands on our shelves using the ‘grain-free’ label while simply replacing grain with another source of carbs, such as soy. It’s true that potatoes, soy, or other legumes other minor nutritional benefits over grain, but none of these ingredients should ever comprise a major part of your kitten’s diet.
In other words, small amounts of carbohydrate ingredients are present in most cat foods, and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. But, if carbohydrates start creeping up the ingredients list—grain or otherwise—you may want to shop elsewhere. By the time carbs make it to the fourth, fifth, or sixth spot, their lower weight, means that they’re compromising a significant proportion of the food.
If your kitten is eating plentiful, well-sourced proteins and fats, and not consuming large amounts of carbohydrates, then they’re 99% percent of the way towards a great foundational diet. Because they are carnivores, kittens are great at deriving all their vitamin, mineral, and essential acid needs from animal products.
Because even the best kitten foods are processed products, however, the nutritiousness of ingredients is inevitably lowered in comparison to real live prey. Because of this, most food will supplement whole ingredients with vitamin, mineral, and fiber additives, filling in any potential gaps in your kitten’s dietary needs.
Beneficial additives to look out in kitten food include:
- Pre-biotics: supports the colonization of bacteria in a new feline immune system
- Taurine is an essential amino sulfonic acid that is naturally found in meat, but it can often be diminished during processing.
- Calcium. Kitten growth formulations should contain 0.8-1.6% calcium on a dry matter basis.
- Vitamin A. They must eat a form of vitamin A that has already has been converted from carotenoids to its active form. In other words, from an animal, not a plant source.
Once an appropriate nutritional product has been chosen, no additional vitamin or mineral supplements should be given.
When a feral or wild cat catches and eats a live animal, they’re consuming something that contains around 70-80 percent water. Just because domestic cats don’t hunt for their food, it doesn’t mean they don’t still require this kind of moisture content in their diet.
As mentioned at the top of this page, cats’ desert roots mean that they always look for hydration from food before water sources, which is why wet foods are so essential. We recommend striking a good balance of hydration and nutrition by selecting kitten foods that contain between 70 and 80 percent water.
For kittens, moisture-rich food also contributes to palatability. Soft textures can be kinder to small teeth and are familiar for kittens transitioning from milk to solids. Many kitten foods will be offered in a soft mousse variety for this reason.
If you find yourself without any high-moisture options, but feel your kitten would benefit from more hydration in their dinner, you can combine one part warm water with three parts dry or canned kitten food. The end result should have a consistency and look resembling cooked oatmeal.