Imagine your body’s weight tripling or quadrupling within six months. Yikes! But such rapid weight gain is a must for a kitten’s survival. Kittens only weigh a few ounces when they are born. By 6 months, they should be weighing between 5 and 6 pounds. They should be weighing in at around 8 pounds by the time they turn one, depending on breed and their frame. We are the key to helping them reach this milestone in a healthy way.
“Science tells us that the body has different demands on it at different stages of life,” says Dr. Kathryn Primm, a veterinarian and owner of the Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and host of the Nine Lives with Dr. Kat podcast on Pet Life Radio. “When kittens are growing, they are building brains, bones, muscles — everything.”
For at least the first four weeks of life, kittens rely on their mother’s milk to provide all the nutrients they need to survive and thrive.
“The ideal newborn kitten is to be with their mother, also known as a queen,” says Jackie Noble, director of the kitten nursery and placement services at the San Diego Humane Society. “The queen will provide nutrient-rich mother’s milk on demand, all while providing grooming, stimulating kittens to pass urine/feces and providing warmth and comfort.”
For orphaned infants, it quickly becomes a matter of life and death. To save more kittens, SDHS opened its 24-hour-a-day kitten shelter in 2009. The kitten nursery is now a model program that can be replicated at other shelters across the country.
“We identified underage kittens as the most ‘at risk’ group of animals in our county,” Jackie says. “Kittens were being euthanized simply because they were too young to eat and survive on their own. There weren’t enough foster homes available to help them grow, so the Kitten Nursery was developed to be a safety net for those kittens.”
Different foods for different stages
There are two sides to kitten nutrition: science and art. Cats of all ages need protein, and 11 essential amino acids to thrive. Kittens need 30% to 50% of the food they eat in the form protein.
“Growing kittens require a lot of protein, fat and calcium along with a whole range of other nutrients like vitamins and minerals to help them grow and develop properly,” says Rosemarie Crawford, co-founder of the National Kitten CoalitionA non-profit organization dedicated to improving the survival rate of kittens.
For newborns, this often means that they need to be bottle-fed. NKC provides helpful resources such as a Feeding Guidelines Chart, Top Bottle-Feeding Hints, and a Feeding Guidelines Chart on its website.
Do you still have questions about what your kitten diet plan should look like? Here are some simple tips that will help you get started.
- Timing is everything. Kittens can wean at between 4 and 5 weeks old and can transition to dry and wet food within 6 weeks. The timing of these meals is critical as kittens are better equipped to digest small amounts of food.
- Probiotics can help. “Weaning can be a stressful time for a kitten and you will often see GI (gastrointestinal) upset,” Jackie says. “When weaning from formula or a mother’s milk to wet food, the transition will go smoother if you offer a supplement, such as a feline probiotic.”
- Hydration is essential. Your kitten should be able to drink water throughout the day.
- Get expert help. Rosemarie says it is imperative to work closely with your veterinarian to determine what commercial kitten food your young feline needs as he grows and the ideal feeding schedule.
- You can feed a variety.You want your kitten to be happy and healthy. Discuss with your veterinarian the possibility of giving your kitten a wide range of textures and flavors. Expanding your kitten’s food palate may aid when he needs to be boarded, stay overnight at a veterinary clinic or needs to switch to a therapeutic diet due to a newly diagnosed medical condition.
And it’s mealtime … again! Your kitten’s growth will be steady and healthy if you give it time.
Bottle-feeding is the only way for abandoned kittens to get the nutrition they need.
“Kitten formulas are high in protein and contain specific ratios of fat, calcium and other important nutrients, like taurine and lysine, which play a critical role in feline heart, muscle and eye development,” says Jackie Noble, director of San Diego Humane Society’s kitten nursery and placement services.
Samantha Jackson, medical director of the Bitty Kitty BrigadeThe Maple Grove, Minnesota-based nonprofit group, teaches that you should work with local veterinarians to find high-quality kitten formulas. Her group uses Fox Valley Kitten formula.
“We hear of some crazy concoctions people find online for feeding neonatal kittens, and these tend to cause digestive upset and do not provide the nutrition that these kittens require,” Samantha says. “In a pinch, I would do goat’s milk if it was available and nothing else was.”
Bottle-feeding kittens can be difficult. Rosemarie Crawford, cofounder of the National Kitten Coalition offers this bottle-feeding tip: If a kitten begins to suck from a bottle but stops because there is a vacuum within the bottle, it could be because the bottle is too full. This prevents kittens sucking hard enough to get more milk.
“A simple solution is to loosen the cap of the bottle ever so slightly, just enough to let a little bit of air to get around the threads of the screw-on-top bottle cap,” she says. “As the kitten removes milk while suckling, air is able to go into the bottle (preventing a vacuum effect) and the kitten can continue suckling his fill.”
She says to support a kitten’s head with a finger on each side of his cheek to keep him in the correct, upright position. The extra support on his cheeks can help the kitten latch on to the bottle easier.
Jackie suggests that you gently groom the kitten’s body with your toothbrush if it becomes excited or wiggly. It mimics the feel and touch of a queen’s toothbrush and helps calm the kitten down.
Most kittens love food, but there are certain foods that are not allowed. This is the top of the list.
- Cow’s milkMost felines are lactose-intolerant
- Human baby foodThat contains onions or garlic, two of the most dangerous ingredients for kittens
- Raw eggsBecause of the possibility of Salmonella bacteria contamination
- Grapes or raisinsThese are high-sugar foods that can cause gastric upset.
- SushiRaw fish contains an enzyme which can destroy thiamine (an essential B vitamin for cats).
Start ‘Em Off Right
These are just some examples of diets that will meet the specific needs for kittens.
Fox Valley Day One Kitten formula $14.10. store.foxvalleynutrition.com
Royal Canin Babycat and Mother$9.49 (3-ounces, 6 pack). Available on chewy.com
Purina ProPlan Focus Kitten Food$28.32 (3 Ounces, Case of 24). Available on chewy.com