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Kittens come into the world head- or tail-first -- and hungry. For the first few weeks, they rely upon their mother’s milk for sustenance. It takes 12 days for their eyelids to open and about 15 days for their ears to open, so their relative helplessness in these very early stages ties them to mom.
At 3 or 4 weeks old, kittens are ready to consume solid food. What you feed it at this point can affect its future life. Food may influence its muscle tone and coat health, and it helps develop strong skin and bones, bright eyes and good digestion.
Here, Dr. Katy J. Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian at the Alexandria Animal Hospital in Alexandria, Va., and Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian for Iams, share kitten mealtime advice.
The Difference Between Kitten and Adult Cat Food
Kittens require their own special food. “Kitten foods have to be much more nutritionally dense than regular foods due to the smaller size of the kitten’s stomach and inability to ingest large amounts,” says Nelson. Even a big bowl of regular adult cat food would not be able to properly satisfy your kitten’s nutritional needs.
Desired Kitten Food Ingredients
Protein: According to Nelson, “The most important thing when hunting for the best kitten foods is to ensure that the first ingredient is a whole protein.” That protein could come from chicken, beef, fish or other meats. Cats are obligate carnivores, so they really need to have meat from an early age on. “Meat protein provides all the essential amino acids required for the rapidly growing kitten,” says Dicke.
Nutrients found in mother’s milk: There is no proper way to harvest cat’s milk, so quality manufacturers study the components of feline mother’s milk and include them in their kitten chow. “Many of these ingredients are vitamins and minerals that would be obtained directly through the milk,” says Nelson. “Others, like DHA and ARA, are derived from fish oils and are important for brain and eye development. Taurine is supplied through natural meat sources and is very important to cardiac and vision health.”
Digestive system helpers: Dried beet pulp might sound like a funky ingredient, but it provides a gentle fiber for kittens that also comes with good vitamin and mineral content. FOS, another fiber, can also help kittens. “Kittens experience so many new things in their environment and much is presented orally, leaving the digestive system to combat and neutralize the offending substances,” says Dicke.
Kitten Food Ingredients to Avoid
Gluten: Some manufacturers use a product known as wheat gluten to boost their products’ protein content. Also known as “wheat meat,” this concoction is made by washing wheat flour dough with water until the starch dissolves. This leaves behind an elastic mass that can be flavored to taste like meat. While vegetarians work wonders with wheat gluten, some cats are allergic to wheat, and it’s just not a direct substitute for meat from animal sources, as far as cats are concerned.
Other primary vegetable protein sources: Veggies are usually cheaper than meat, so some manufacturers cut corners by using other vegetable protein sources in place of animal protein. Cats are not built to be vegetarians, so your kitten chow must have protein from a meat source.
Transitioning from Kitten to Adult Cat Food
Depending on the size and breed of your kitten, Dicke and Nelson recommend that you transition it to an adult food when your kitten is between 9 and 12 months old. The transition, says Nelson, “should always be done over a period of 7 to 10 days, slowly adjusting the ratios until the cat is fully on the new food.”
Here’s a recommended feeding schedule for this transitional period:
Day No. 1: Fill your cat’s dish with 75 percent kitten food and 25 percent adult food.
Day No. 2: Mix adult and kitten food in a 50-50 ratio.
Day No. 3: Feed your cat a mixture that’s 75 percent adult food and 25 percent kitten food.
Day No. 4: Switch to 100 percent adult formula.
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Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Daily Cat. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel, and has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics.