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The Unique Nutritional Needs of Kittens and How to Address Them

Kittens grow quickly from purring balls of fuzz into spirited young acrobats, and to support that growth they need proper nutrition.

Because kittens' bodies and brains develop rapidly in a short amount of time, they need different calories and nutrients than adult cat food can provide. A lack of proper nutrition can lead to obesity, improper bone and muscle development, and poor immune health. If you're a kitten parent or are about to welcome a kitten into your family, we're here to help you provide the best for your new feline family member at all stages of life.

Nutrients Kittens Need in Their Food

Your kitten’s weight may double or triple in just a few weeks, all while their vision, brain, immune system and other important functions are also developing. This tends to be a very active time for kittens, too, as they jump, run and roll while exploring the world around them.

To fuel their growth in the first year of life, a kitten's diet needs to contain more energy-producing nutrients than are found in adult cat food, including high levels of protein for muscle and bone development, essential fatty acids for strong metabolism and healthy skin and coat, and amino acids (like taurine) to support cardiovascular health and eyesight development. Kitten food should also contain plenty of vitamin A, vitamin D, arachidonic acid and other minerals that support brain development, vision and strong teeth.

How to Choose the Right Kitten Food

Kittens can start eating dry food when they are between four and eight weeks old, the age when they normally wean off their mother’s milk. After that, your kitten’s diet can consist of wet or dry food or a combination of both.

When shopping for kitten food, look for reputable brands that design formulas specifically for young developmental stages. Once you’ve chosen a kitten food, monitor changes in your kitten's weight, alertness and coat. If your kitten shows signs of weight loss, lethargy or dry or flaky skin, speak to your veterinarian about changing your kitten's diet to meet their individual needs.

To help you start your search, here are a few kitten food brands that are popular with pet parents for their quality ingredients and nutritional value:

Royal Canin kitten food contains the proteins, minerals and vitamins to support a kitten’s high energy needs between the ages of four months and one year. Their formulas incorporate antioxidants and vitamins to help boost your kitten’s developing immune system.Royal Canin kitten food contains the proteins, minerals and vitamins to support a kitten’s high energy needs between the ages of four months and one year. Their formulas incorporate antioxidants and vitamins to help boost your kitten’s developing immune system.

Hill’s Science Diet kitten food delivers high-quality proteins and minerals to help support muscle and bone development. Their recipes also include DHA to promote healthy brain and eye development.

For pet parents who want a grain-free option, WholeHearted’s grain-free kitten food is full of quality ingredients without corn, wheat or other grains. This formula includes probiotics to help support your kitten’s digestive system, omega-3 fatty acids to promote healthy skin and coat, and DHA, the fatty acid that supports proper brain development.

ACANA kitten food offers taurine, EPA and DHA, all of which help aid brain and eye development. Their ingredients also include the proteins and fatty acids needed for healthy muscles, bones, and skin and coat. ACANA kitten food incorporates whole prey animal ingredients, such as liver, to craft a flavor many kittens love.

Blue Buffalo's Baby BLUE line of kitten food is specially crafted to support the growth of young felines. Baby BLUE recipes are full of natural ingredients like chicken, brown rice, fruits and veggies—and exclude grains, byproduct meats, artificial flavors and preservatives. This delivers the high-quality proteins kittens need for energy and the fatty acids (like DHA and ARA) necessary for brain and eye development.

How to Feed Your Kitten

To help your kitten meet their daily nutritional needs, most veterinarians recommend feeding them three meals a day. Because a kitten's stomach is smaller than that of an adult cat's, this helps ensure they receive an adequate amount of calories and nutrients.

To determine how much to give your kitten at each meal, check your kitten food package for the daily recommended amount. Split the total daily amount of food into three equal portions, and feed these at evenly spaced intervals throughout the day: one meal in the morning, one mid-day and one in the evening, for example. As your kitten approaches 10 to12 months old, you can switch to feeding just two meals a day—one in the morning and one evening.

Whichever intervals you choose, try to keep them consistent each day. A routine feeding schedule promotes healthy eating habits and enables you to control your kitten’s diet and monitor their development and weight gain.

Avoid Free Feeding Unless Recommended By a Vet

Many cat parents find they can leave a full bowl of food out in the morning, and their adult cat will self-manage their diet, eating as they feel hungry and stopping when they feel full. This is called free feeding, and while it can work well for adult cats who are already at a healthy weight and have no trouble maintaining that, it's usually not advised for kittens as they haven't yet learned how to listen to their body's hunger signals. For very young kittens (under the age of four months) who are underweight or growing more slowly than expected, a veterinarian may recommend free feeding to lower the risk of rapid eating (which may lead to stomach distention) and help underdeveloped kittens get the calories they need.

Consult your veterinarian if you think this might be best for your pet.

Feed Your Kitten Alone, Separate from Other Pets

If you live in a multi-pet household, feed your kitten separately from the other pets in the home. Close off one room at your kitten’s mealtime, or set up a baby gate, pen or area that other pets cannot access while your kitten eats.

This is important for both your kitten’s growth and the health of your other furry family members. Many animals, including adult cats and dogs, may be enticed by the flavors and fatty content of kitten food. If a different pet gets into the kitten’s food bowl, your kitten won’t get the full nutritional value they need—and the other pet is at risk of indigestion, obesity or other health issues, as kitten food contains more calories than most animals should receive.

How to Transition a Kitten to Adult Food

Most veterinarians recommend that kittens continue eating kitten food until they reach one year old. Around one year of age, your kitten's nutritional needs will change and you can begin to transition them to an adult cat food, which contains fewer proteins, fats and calories. Before you make a food switch, consult your veterinarian about your cat’s health requirements.

It's important to transition your kitten to adult cat food gradually, over a period of seven to 10 days. A cat's digestive system contains important enzymes and bacteria that need time to adjust to a new formula or ingredients. If you change a cat's diet too quickly, they may experience digestive issues, including diarrhea or vomiting. Some cats are also picky eaters and a sudden change in food may result in your kitten refusing to eat.

To make the switch to adult cat food, start by feeding your kitten approximately 75 percent of their regular kitten food mixed with 25 percent of the new adult food. After about three days, increase the ratio of adult to kitten food so that your kitten is eating 50 percent of each. In another three days, increase the ratio again: to 75 percent of the adult cat food and only 25 percent of the kitten food. After a few days, you can switch to entirely adult cat food.

Preparing for Kittenhood: Beyond Mealtime

A quality, nutrient-packed kitten food is essential for your kitten to develop strong muscles, healthy bones, and a sleek, glossy coat as they enter adulthood. But food is only one part of a kitten’s health and wellness. To help you prepare for all aspects of kitten parenthood, check out our wealth of kitten resources.