In 2020, over 2.2 billion units of cat food were sold in the United States. With so much food flying off the shelves, feline nutrition takes on a whole new level of importance. And when we think about cat food, a common question that follows is: What do kittens eat?
Nutrition is key for kittens in preventing serious health consequences and promoting healthy growth. Read this article to understand what kind of food your kitten should eat, how much, and how often.
What Do Kittens Eat?
Kittens require higher levels of nutrients than adult cats do simply because they are growing.
Some of these nutritional needs include:
- Energy (calories)
- Minerals (such as calcium and phosphorus)
Newborn kittens (3 weeks old and under) get adequate nutrition from their mother’s milk or from commercial kitten formula. It is very important that kittens only drink their mother’s milk or a commercial formula made for cats because each species has very different milk properties, and kittens require specific nutrient balances. Certain amino acids such as taurine that cats require are not found in dog milk or goat milk, for instance. Without taurine cats develop severe heart disease and blindness.
After kittens turn 3-4 weeks old, canned and dry commercial diets will provide complete nutrition for kittens. The food should either state it is formulated for kittens or for all life-stages. If a food is formulated for all life-stages, this means that the higher nutrients kittens would require are included in the food.
Kittens should not be fed adult cat food as it will not contain sufficient fat, protein, or minerals for healthy growth. However, if a kitten eats some adult food for a day or two until you can get to the store, it’s no problem!
The Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) has developed minimum standards for what nutrition foods must contain for dogs and cats. Look for a small AAFCO statement on the bag or cans of food. If there isn’t one, another brand of food should be chosen.
How Long Do Kittens Nurse?
Kittens eat liquid-only diets until they are approximately 3-4 weeks of age. At that time, kittens slowly begin eating more solid foods.
If you have a mother cat and kittens, simply leave out plenty of canned cat food so that kittens and the mother cat can eat as they please. The kittens will watch their mother eat and will try it on their own. A pate-style canned food is much easier for kittens than chunky foods. Mother cats naturally wean their own kittens by decreasing the amount of time the kittens are allowed to nurse.
If you have a very young kitten without a mother, at 3-4 weeks of age begin offering a shallow dish of kitten formula with a very small amount of canned pate food mixed in. Bring the kitten to the dish and entice them to eat by using a small spoon placed near their mouth. Most kittens at this age will begin chewing or suckling on the contents of the spoon. Slowly bring the spoon down into the bowl so the kitten tries some of the mixture. This stage is very messy!
Once the kitten begins eating out of the dish reliably, bottle feeding is no longer necessary. This occurs when they eat out of a dish without chewing the sides of the dish and without sucking on the food.
Offer a new dish of formula and canned food at least twice daily, if not 3 to 4 times per day, out of a clean dish. Every couple days, increase the amount of canned food mixed into the formula for about 2 weeks. Kittens should be fully off formula (or their mother’s milk) by 6 to 9 weeks of age.
When Can Kittens Eat Wet Food?
Kittens can eat wet kitten food as early as 3 weeks of age. Since kittens are not usually fully weaned until 6 to 9 weeks of age, there is ideally a gradual change from formula or their mother’s milk to a solid-food diet.
However, some kittens younger than 6 weeks old—as young as 3 weeks old—are already onto solid foods. If a kitten refuses to eat from a bottle, and is 3 weeks of age or older, set out a plate of canned food and see what happens! The kitten may very well chow down.
When Can Kittens Eat Dry Food?
Kittens can be offered dry food whenever they have fully transitioned to canned food—approximately 6 weeks of age and older. Your kitten will choose whether they prefer mostly canned food or mostly dry food. The important thing is to provide as much canned and dry food as your kitten wishes to eat!
What Human Food Can Kittens Eat?
Cats are obligate carnivores, so really your cat can eat plain, well-cooked meat of any kind. Raw or undercooked meat is not good for your cat, as bacteria and parasites can cause serious health concerns in your cat including diarrhea and vomiting.
Cats should only eat up to 10 percent of their daily food requirements as food other than their main balanced diet.
If you choose to feed human food to your cat, it would equate to approximately 1 tablespoon in total per day. As long as the human food is safe for your cat and all treats including human food are kept to a total of 1 tablespoon per day, your kitten can enjoy some human food!
Examples of safe human foods for kittens include:
- Meat, plain and well-cooked
- Eggs, cooked
- Vegetables (other than onion, garlic or chives), fresh and plain
- Fruit (other than citrus fruit or grapes), fresh and plain – including strawberries!
- Starches, plain and cooked such as rice, potato, bread or noodles
- Popcorn, cooked without salt or butter
Can Kittens Eat Tuna?
Kittens can have small amounts of tuna each day. In total, kittens should be fed no more than 1 tablespoon per day of foods other than their main diet. If tuna is fed in this amount or less, your kitten should not experience any ill effects.
Tuna itself is not a particularly beneficial part of a cat’s diet.
Kittens that are fed larger amounts of tuna have developed serious health issues, including:
- Nutritional deficiency, particularly a lack of calcium.
- Thiamine deficiency, since tuna contains enzymes that break down thiamine which cats need to survive.
- Pansteatitis, a painful and potentially lethal inflammation of the fat throughout the body.
- Lower urinary tract disease, inflammation of the bladder leading to discomfort.
- Abnormal bleeding, due to tuna decreasing effective vitamin K.
Homemade Kitten Food
Feeding your young feline homemade kitten food is very challenging and not recommended by veterinary nutritionists. This is particularly true in kittens, as growing animals have even higher nutritional demands.
Cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat to survive. This does not mean that cats only need meat, however, and without proper supplements added to a mixture of proteins and carbohydrates your cat will not do well. Kittens are particularly susceptible to nutritional deficiency, meaning they are not receiving adequate nutrition even if the amount of food is adequate.
An example of this is nutritional secondary hyperparathyroidism, a condition that occurs in kittens not fed balanced diets related to calcium and phosphorus levels. Their bones become paper-thin and break without any trauma, causing significant pain and discomfort.
If you do decide to make a homemade diet for your kitten, you must speak with your veterinarian. The internet is full of people’s recipes, which are unfounded and could lead to serious health conditions in your kitten if not given under veterinary supervision.
What Not to Feed Your Kitten
There are many things that should not be fed to your kitten. These include the following:
Dairy products, like milk, may cause stomach upset including vomiting and diarrhea since cats do not have much enzyme to break down lactose.
Salty foods can cause increased urination and drinking and may even cause toxicity if fed in high quantities including tremors and seizures.
Undercooked meat, eggs and bones may contain dangerous bacteria. Raw eggs actually decrease absorption of B vitamins causing skin and coat problems. Bones can splinter and become lodged in your kitten’s throat.
Other foods that should not be fed to your kitten include:
- Citrus fruits or plants
- Coconut or coconut oil
- Grapes or raisins
- Xylitol (found in gum, candy, baked goods and toothpaste)
- Yeast dough
How Much Food Should a Kitten Eat?
Young kittens primarily eating formula (4 weeks and under) should eat no more than their stomach can hold. Stomach capacity for food is determined based on body weight. This would equate to 20 ml of formula per pound.
Kittens under 4 months old require 90 calories per pound per day. But, the best rule of thumb for kittens between 2 and 6 months of age is to feed as much as they will eat of a balanced kitten diet. Some kittens will eat more than others, depending on their own individual metabolism.
Once your kitten reaches 6 months of age, their metabolism will begin to slow down. Most cats will require much less food and should be monitored closely for unnecessary weight gain. Each and every kitten is different, so amounts may vary considerably.
How Much Wet Food to Feed a Kitten
For kittens under 4 months old, one-half of a 5.5 oz can of cat food should be fed in total over a single day.
For kittens over 4 months, most will eat approximately 1.5 to 2 cans of 5.5 oz canned food per day.
How Much Dry Food to Feed a Kitten
For kittens under 4 months, approximately one-quarter cup of dry food would be fed in total over a single day. If offering canned food as well (which is strongly recommended), decrease the total amount of dry food by one to two tablespoons.
For kittens over 4 months, most will eat approximately one-half cup to three-quarters cup of dry food per day. Decrease by one-quarter cup if offering canned food, too.
How Often Should Kittens Eat?
Kittens eating formula should ideally eat 7 times per day if 1 week old, 6 times per day if 2 weeks old, 5 times per day if 3 weeks old and 4 times per day if 4 weeks old.
Kittens prefer to whenever they feel like it. However, meal feeding once your kitten is eating solid food can lead to healthier eating habits in the future. Feeding 2 to 4 meals per day is preferred.
When to Switch from Kitten Food to Cat Food
Once a kitten reaches 10-12 months of age, they should be transitioned to an adult cat food diet. The lower protein and calorie content in adult cat food will help in preventing cat obesity. Portion control becomes very important as well, monitoring how much your cat is eating and listening to your veterinarian if your kitten has started gaining extra fat.
To transition your kitten to adult food, it will be easier to do the switch gradually over approximately one week. Each day mix in a little more of the adult food and a little less of the kitten food. Choosing the adult version of the same brand of food will help as the taste should be somewhat similar.
Kittens have specific nutritional needs. Using tips from this article will ensure your kitten remains healthy and eats the quality food they deserve. You can always call your veterinarian if you are concerned. As long as you choose a balanced commercial kitten diet and keep treats to a minimum, your kitten will live a long healthy life!