For kitten nutrition, the breast is best, according to Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian with Procter & Gamble. “Mother’s milk is the ‘gold standard food’ and usually the only source of nourishment for baby kittens in the first three to four weeks of life,” she says. “Nursing provides all the essential nutrients and the first milk, called colostrum, brings immunoglobulins that provide disease protection.” It’s no surprise then that kittens spend as much as one-third of the first week of their lives nursing.
At four weeks of age, when their digestive tracts are ready to accept it, kittens are usually introduced to solid food. Below, Dicke weighs in on the most important nutrients for these growing young kitties.
The Weaning Period
At the four-week mark, kittens should transition to a mix of mother’s milk and a high-quality commercial kitten food. If the kitten’s mom is not around, your veterinarian can help you find an acceptable replacement for milk in those early weeks. Kittens need two to three times the amount of calories as adult cats to support their rapid growth, and 30 percent of those calories should come from protein. Commercial kitten formulas are generally designed to meet this need.
Dicke recommends that kitten food be mixed with water, at least at first. “Kitten food should be introduced gradually, and have a thick gruel consistency. The moisture content of the gruel can be gradually reduced until weaning.”
By 8 weeks of age, kittens generally are completely weaned from their mother’s milk. A kitten’s first food should contain many of the same nutrients as its mom’s milk, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron. It should be highly digestible and calorie-dense to meet the demanding needs of growth. “Stomachs are tiny,” says Dicke. “Food intake will primarily be in small amounts throughout the day.” Most veterinarians suggest leaving dry food out for your kitten so it can graze as needed around the clock.
Other Nutritional Needs
- DHA An omega-3 fatty acid primarily found in fish oil and fishmeal, DHA is essential to healthy brain development. “It’s a major component of neurologic tissue, so it’s an absolute must for kittens,” says Dicke.
- Vitamin E This is a necessary antioxidant that protects cells from free-radical destruction. It’s an important component of the immune cell, so it helps kittens fight common diseases.
- Fats These supply energy as well as essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for skin and coat health as well as immunity and the modulation of inflammatory conditions. “The balance between omega-6 and omega-3 is important in achieving desired body responses,” says Dicke. “Some diets have minimal amounts of omega-3s. To avoid these, look for sources of fish oil and fishmeal on the ingredient panel.”
- High-quality Protein Meat-based proteins, like chicken, are important for kittens because they provide taurine, an amino acid that is essential for healthy growth. The first ingredient in a good kitten formula is a recognizable animal protein.
- Highly Digestible Fiber Healthy digestion is partially dependent on a high-quality fiber source. Dicke recommends a kitten formula that contains FOS (fructooligosaccharide) and beet pulp.
Kitten to Cat
When it turns 1 year old, your kitten will officially become a cat and will transition to an adult cat formula. The nutrient-rich diet in its first year will put your cat on the right health path, with benefits that could make a positive difference for years to come.