Last updated: August 27, 2016
Raising kittens is one of the greatest joys for cat lovers! Mother cats have everything their kittens need to nurture and nourish kittens through their first few weeks of life. As the kittens grow bigger, the mother cat will need your help to provide for her kittens’ needs.
Caring for kittens is significantly different than caring for adult cats. Even the most experienced cat owners may have questions regarding kittens’ nutrition and dietary needs. Learning how to properly feed your kittens as they grow will benefit you, your mother cat, and your kittens!
How Long will a Mother Cat Nurse her Kittens?
A mother cat’s milk is perfect for meeting the nutritional needs of her kittens, and it is the only nourishment that kittens need for the first 4 weeks of their life. After they turn 4 weeks old, kittens will gradually transition to kitten food.
Weaning is defined as the process of transitioning from mother’s milk to solid food. Ideally, the mother cat will handle the progressive limitation of her kittens’ access to her milk. And you, the pet owner, will handle the introduction of kitten food to the kittens.
Kittens that are 5 to 6 weeks of age should still be nursing, but they should also be nibbling on kitten food consistently. The assimilation of kitten food into the kittens’ diet is a gradual, progressive process.
Mother cats will continue to suckle their kittens until they are 8 to 10 weeks old, at which age the weaning process should be complete. By the time the kittens are weaned, they will already be receiving most of their nutrients from kitten food.
Also during the weaning process, kittens progress from dependence on their mother to social independence. They should remain with their mother during the weaning process as they learn by observing her. Using a litter box, eating, and playing are all skills taught to kittens by their mothers. Abruptly removing the kittens from their mother prior to the completion of the weaning process- can have a devastating effect on the kittens’ health and socialization skills.
The Nutritional Needs of Kittens
Have you ever noticed how fast kittens grow? During the first few weeks of their lives, kittens can double or even triple in weight! In order to support such rapid growth, as well as the high activity levels of kittens, kittens need as much as 3 times more energy than adult cats.
For some nutrients, adults and kittens have similar needs. For example, cats’ needs for fats, some fatty acids, and most vitamins are the same as kittens’ needs. However, compared to adult cats, kittens have higher requirements for protein, amino acids, minerals, and some vitamins. For kittens, 30% of their energy should come from protein.
In addition, as kittens are weaned off their mother’s milk, they need more calcium from their solid food. It is important to note that most adult cat foods do not have enough calcium for kittens to thrive. Calcium deficiency in kittens can cause many serious health problems including rickets, hyperparathyroidism, and osteomalacia, which is softening of the bones.
Food that is formulated especially for the nutritional needs of kittens is essential for kittens to grow and develop into healthy cats. Kitten food contains more protein than adult cat food, as well as more taurine, which is an amino acid that is crucial for good health.
Is Adult Cat Food Ever a Good Idea for Kittens?
Why not feed your kittens adult food and give them milk for extra nutrition? That would be a big mistake for you and your kittens because drinking milk on a regular basis will probably give your kittens diarrhea! Even though most people think milk is good for felines, it’s not. After weaning, most kittens become lactose intolerant.
Couldn’t you just feed your kittens adult cat food and then give them extra vitamins and minerals? No, you should avoid feeding your kittens any vitamin or mineral supplements as they can cause serious illness. Supplements for kittens are only safe when administered under the advice of a veterinarian.
What about cat food that claims to be good for kittens? Some cat foods are labeled as appropriate for all feline life stages, including kittens. However, most experts recommend that you feed your kittens specially formulated kitten food until they are 1 year old, which is the age when adulthood in cats begins.
And what if you want to feed your kittens treats? Sure, a few treats are okay as long as they do not constitute more than 5% of your kittens’ daily nutritional intake.
What if your kittens love their kitten food, but their mother cat does too? Even though kitten food usually has more calories, protein, and fat than adult cat food, it’s not inherently dangerous for adult cats to eat kitten food. As a matter of fact, when a cat is pregnant or nursing, she needs more calories and higher fat content. The only worry of allowing an adult cat to eat kitten food is the risk of obesity from overconsumption of calories and fat.
What about older kittens? You should never forget that an older kitten is still a kitten! As your kittens grow and mature through their first year of life, you may think they are big enough to start eating adult cat food early. But just because your kittens start to resemble adult cats in appearance does not mean that they have the nutritional needs of adult cats. If you feed your older kittens adult cat food, they will eat extra food to make up for the lower nutrient levels. As a result, your older kittens could develop weight problems.
Help! My Kittens Just Ate Some Adult Cat Food!
You don’t have to panic if you accidentally allow your kittens to eat some adult cat food! Eating it once or twice will not harm your kittens, but your kittens should not have a regular diet of adult cat food until they are 1 year old.
If you deviate from the 1 year feeding threshold, you will not be giving your kittens the healthy start that they need in life. So why not celebrate your kitten’s’ first birthday with their first bowl of adult cat food? Your gift to your kittens will be good nutrition.