Feeding Kittens: What, When, How Much

Experts answer six common questions about kitten food and more.

By Annie Stuart
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Drew Weigner, DVM

When it comes to cuteness, few critters can compare to kittens. If you've just acquired a kitten (or two), you're probably learning all about kitten care. You want to do what you can to ensure that your adorable baby grows into a healthy adult. Proper feeding is a big part of the health equation. After the first four weeks of mother's milk, a kitten gradually transitions to kitten food, and is completely weaned at about eight weeks. Here's what you need to know once you've brought your kitten home.

1. How do kittens' nutritional needs differ from those of adult cats?

A kitten's weight may double or even triple during the first few weeks of life. To support this explosive growth -- as well as high activity levels -- your kitten may have triple the energy needs of an adult cat.

These high energy needs make it harder for kittens to get enough calories in one meal, says Jennifer Larsen, DVM, PhD, nutritional consultant and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “So most kittens want to eat at least three or four meals a day,” she says. “It's also a comfort thing -- kittens are snackers at heart.”

Kittens' needs for fat, some fatty acids, and most vitamins are the same as for adult cats, Larsen says. But kittens have a higher requirement for protein, amino acids, and minerals, as well as for some vitamins. For example, kittens should get about 30% of their energy from protein.

For these reasons, most experts recommend you feed your kitten specially formulated kitten food until age one. Although some cat foods are labeled as appropriate for kittens and cats of all life stages, these aren't appropriate for your kitten unless feeding tests support the label claim.

And don't forget to provide plenty of fresh water - it's a key to keeping cats of all ages healthy.

2. How can I know I'm selecting a high-quality kitten food?

Mindy Bough, CVT, senior director of client services for the Midwest Office of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) emphasizes the importance of high-quality kitten food. “I don't recommend generic or store brands,” Bough says. Buy from a reputable company -- one that veterinarians recommend more frequently, she says. “Research has determined these kitten foods provide excellent health.”

But how can you be certain a kitten food is of high quality? One way is by checking the label. It should at least contain the following: “Meets the nutritional requirements of kittens established by the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO).” AAFCO is a group of state and federal officials who regulate pet food. Even better, look for this: “Complete and balanced nutrition for kittens based on AAFCO feeding trials.” “Complete and balanced nutrition” means your kitten will require no mineral or vitamin supplementation. In fact, remember that too much of a “good thing” can be bad for your kitten, causing severe medical problems. Use supplements only if your veterinarian recommends them.

Also use caution with homemade diets. For example, all-meat homemade diets can be low in calcium, leading to a mineral imbalance that causes hyperparathyroidism, a disease more common in rapidly growing kittens. “If you use a homemade diet, make sure it's been formulated by a reputable nutritionist,” Bough says.

After feeding for a period of time, you be the judge. With proper nutrition, your kitten should be healthy and alert, have a steady weight gain, and a clean, glossy coat. If not, check with your veterinarian about possible diet changes or ruling out any health problems.