How to Select the Best Food for Your Kitten

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.

As you can see, the kitten stage of life is incredibly short. Savor each moment by allowing your kitten to savor and enjoy delicious, nutritious food that will set your pet off on the right growth and health track.

Mother’s Milk Influences Kitten Food

For kitten nutrition, the breast is best, according to Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian with Procter & Gamble. “Mother’s milk is the ‘gold standard food’ and usually the only source of nourishment for baby kittens in the first three to four weeks of life,” she says. “Nursing provides all the essential nutrients and the first milk, called colostrum, brings immunoglobulins that provide disease protection.” It’s no surprise then that kittens spend as much as one-third of the first week of their lives nursing.

At four weeks of age, when their digestive tracts are ready to accept it, kittens are usually introduced to solid food. Below, Dicke weighs in on the most important nutrients for these growing young kitties.

The Weaning Period
At the four-week mark, kittens should transition to a mix of mother’s milk and a high-quality commercial kitten food. If the kitten’s mom is not around, your veterinarian can help you find an acceptable replacement for milk in those early weeks. Kittens need two to three times the amount of calories as adult cats to support their rapid growth, and 30 percent of those calories should come from protein. Commercial kitten formulas are generally designed to meet this need.

Dicke recommends that kitten food be mixed with water, at least at first. “Kitten food should be introduced gradually, and have a thick gruel consistency. The moisture content of the gruel can be gradually reduced until weaning.”

After Weaning
By 8 weeks of age, kittens generally are completely weaned from their mother’s milk. A kitten’s first food should contain many of the same nutrients as its mom’s milk, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron. It should be highly digestible and calorie-dense to meet the demanding needs of growth. “Stomachs are tiny,” says Dicke. “Food intake will primarily be in small amounts throughout the day.” Most veterinarians suggest leaving dry food out for your kitten so it can graze as needed around the clock.

Other Nutritional Needs

  • DHA An omega-3 fatty acid primarily found in fish oil and fishmeal, DHA is essential to healthy brain development. “It’s a major component of neurologic tissue, so it’s an absolute must for kittens,” says Dicke.
  • Vitamin E This is a necessary antioxidant that protects cells from free-radical destruction. It’s an important component of the immune cell, so it helps kittens fight common diseases.
  • Fats These supply energy as well as essential omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for skin and coat health as well as immunity and the modulation of inflammatory conditions. “The balance between omega-6 and omega-3 is important in achieving desired body responses,” says Dicke. “Some diets have minimal amounts of omega-3s. To avoid these, look for sources of fish oil and fishmeal on the ingredient panel.”
  • High-quality Protein Meat-based proteins, like chicken, are important for kittens because they provide taurine, an amino acid that is essential for healthy growth. The first ingredient in a good kitten formula is a recognizable animal protein.
  • Highly Digestible Fiber Healthy digestion is partially dependent on a high-quality fiber source. Dicke recommends a kitten formula that contains FOS (fructooligosaccharide) and beet pulp.

Kitten to Cat
When it turns 1 year old, your kitten will officially become a cat and will transition to an adult cat formula. The nutrient-rich diet in its first year will put your cat on the right health path, with benefits that could make a positive difference for years to come.

Does Your Cat Food Meet AAFCO Standards?

Most of us have learned to check the ingredients list on cat food, but there’s another set of information that merits your attention: the guaranteed analysis. Understanding this information, which is based on the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) guidelines, provides you with another important tool in the marketplace.

“Minimum percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and maximum percentages of crude fiber and moisture must be listed in the guaranteed analysis,” says Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical services veterinarian with Iams. “Pet food manufacturers may guarantee other nutrients as well.”

Here, Dicke and Dr. Katy Nelson, an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va., take you through the guaranteed analysis information on cat food, explaining its many benefits -- and its limitations.

What the Guaranteed Analysis Will and Will Not Do
“Guarantees indicate the nutrient will be present at no more or no less, depending on the guarantee, throughout the shelf life of the product,” says Dicke. Here’s what the guaranteed analysis will and won’t do:


  • Allow you to compare foods
  • Indicate the legal minimums of crude protein and crude fat
  • Provide the legal maximums of water and crude fiber contained in the product
  • Permit direct comparisons between products with similar water content, such as one dry food versus another dry food or one wet/canned food versus another wet/canned food

Will not

  • Portray the quality of ingredients within a product
  • Specify the actual amount of protein, fat, water and fiber in the food
  • Permit comparisons between products with different water amounts

As you can see, water levels are a big consideration. “Canned foods typically contain 75 percent to 78 percent moisture, whereas dry foods contain only 10 percent to 12 percent moisture,” says Dicke. “To make meaningful comparisons of nutrient levels between a canned and dry product, they should be expressed on the same moisture basis.”

Using the Guaranteed Analysis Information
Until your cat actually eats a food, you cannot tell if the meal will be a taste bud pleaser. By reading pet food labels at the store, however, you can make predictions about a product’s quality and nutrient punch. Nelson shares the tips below:

1. If your cat is getting older and/or has renal issues, look for a food that has higher moisture content. It will help keep your pet hydrated.

2. If your cat suffers from weight issues, diabetes, renal difficulties, diarrhea or constipation, speak with your veterinarian about desired protein and fiber levels in pet food. You may need to find a diet that is more geared to your particular pet’s needs.

3. Beneficial inclusions like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are not required in the guaranteed analysis; however, many premium cat food products will guarantee minimal levels of these fatty acids to let pet owners know that the health benefits of the nutrient can be expected throughout product shelf life.

4. Another inclusion not required in the guaranteed analysis is L-carnitine. If your cat is overweight, however, studies suggest L-carnitine can help the body enhance lean muscle mass by promoting a more efficient manner of utilizing dietary fats.

5. Protein should be higher in your cat’s food, while carbohydrates should be lower. “Cats are obligate carnivores and do not metabolize carbs efficiently,” says Nelson. “They store most of their carb intake as fat.”

6. In some cat foods, maximum levels of ash and magnesium may be guaranteed, both of which can influence urinary health. If your cat has a urinary tract condition, your veterinarian can provide guidance.

Benefits of DHA for Your Growing Kitten

While animal experts puzzle over exactly what goes on in the mind of a kitten or a cat, one thing that’s understood is that DHA plays an important role in a kitten’s brain development.

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid, is essential to your young cat’s neural growth. Kittens naturally produce DHA, but their bodies don’t easily put it to use. The key to raising a smart adult cat is feeding your kitten a high-quality commercial food that contains DHA. “A diet rich in omega-3s for kittens is of extraordinary importance,” explains Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian.

Why DHA Matters
To see why DHA is so important, it helps to know about the brains of all mammals. Fat has plenty of negative connotations in today’s media, but we mammals can’t function without it. A healthy brain contains about 60 percent structural fat, and nearly one-third of that fat consists of DHA. This omega-3 fatty acid is not only abundant in the brain, but it’s also a major structural component of the retina, explains Dr. Amy Dicke, a technical service veterinarian with Iams.

Research conducted on puppies has demonstrated a marked difference in puppies that are fed a diet high in DHA as compared with those that are fed a low-DHA diet. Using the same training methods and the same types of dogs, researchers found that puppies that received plenty of DHA were far easier to train.

Notes Nelson: “Kittens are far too fussy to ever put up with an experiment to test their trainability.” However, experts say you can expect similar benefits from feeding your kitten a DHA-rich commercial food. “It is logical to believe DHA would provide similar trainability benefits to your kitten,” explains Dicke. In fact, says Nelson, human research is starting to examine the role DHA levels might play in ADD, ADHD and depression in children and teens.

DHA is particularly critical when your cat is young because its brain is still developing and growing. In fact, veterinarians consider the fatty acid so important they recommend that pregnant and nursing cats be fed DHA-rich kitten food to pass the benefits on to their kittens. “The benefits of a diet rich in DHA starts in the womb, much like pregnant women taking prenatal vitamins,” says Dicke.

Make sure your kitten receives a premium kitten food containing DHA, and your kitten is likely to see social benefits and learn more easily. Your kitten also will be less likely to engage in negative behavior.

Other Benefits of DHA
DHA plays other essential roles as well, explains Nelson. Possible benefits include better vision, less inflammation, healthier gums, a glossy coat and better digestion. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, DHA also plays a role in avoiding skin allergies. In turn, a healthy skin and coat means your kitten is less likely to groom excessively and to suffer from hairballs.

The Source of DHA
It is best for your kitten to obtain DHA through the fish, fish meal and fish oils in a commercial kitten food, since it’s difficult to ensure the proper balance of fatty acids and the proper nutrition through the use of supplements.

Feeding your kitten the right food is an easy step toward helping it to become a healthy, intelligent adult cat. Says Nelson: “They have to eat anyway, so feeding them a diet that is full of the best stuff is a way of giving them the biggest advantage as they start off in life.”

Cat Food That Maintains Healthy Digestion

Virginia-based emergency veterinarian Katy Nelson has seen the results of cat food with low digestibility. “You can spot a cat on a high-fiber diet a mile away,” Nelson says. “Its skin is dull, and its coat is far from pretty.” Obese cats, once routinely fed high-fiber diets in order to promote weight loss, were basically wasting away as the nutrients they needed to absorb from their food went out of their body in the form of waste.

Increasingly, veterinarians and cat food manufacturers agree that cats need to feast on foods with moderately fermentable fibers. Nelson shares her advice for identifying digestive issues and looking for specific ingredients in your cat’s food to ensure that it’s getting all the nutrients it needs to thrive.

Identifying Digestive Troubles

Unfortunately, the best way to identify whether or not your cat has digestive problems is to check its poop. Stools that are too hard or too soft may be an indication that your cat is either not absorbing nutrients from food, or that the food does not have the proper nutrients to keep the digestive tract healthy in the first place.

“If your cat is having problems with elimination or vomiting, you need to work with your veterinarian to investigate what is going on. If you haven’t changed your pet’s diet and it has diarrhea for more than two or three days, vomits multiple times a day or has any blood in its stool, this indicates something more serious than improper digestion,” says Nelson. Once your veterinarian has ruled out conditions like pancreatitis, parasites and inflammatory bowel disease, it’s time to talk about food.

Best Ingredients for GI-healthy Diets

  • Beet Pulp The term “digestibility” refers to how easily food goes down -- and how readily absorbable its ingredients make its nutrients. According to Nelson, the best fiber source is moderately fermentable, which comes in the form of beet pulp.
  • Prebiotics These are ingredients that promote the gut’s natural, good bacteria while keeping the bad bacteria in check. The next ingredient on Nelson’s list of must-haves is the prebiotic fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which crowds out the bad bacteria and feed the good.
  • Grain Sorghum and Corn Research has found that the combination of these complex carbohydrates also enhances digestibility. providing a stable source of energy throughout the day.

The above ingredients also enhance gastrointestinal tract health, allowing your cat to absorb vitamins, minerals and other beneficial components, like vitamin A and fish oils.

Prescription Formula

If your cat is having digestive problems despite being on a diet with beet pulp and prebiotics, talk to your vet about a veterinary intestinal formula. “I often try a prescription diet for a short period, and then taper off to a nonprescription food,” says Nelson. “The prescription diet usually serves as a temporary solution. Once the pet gets through a tough time, we go back.” She adds that some cats may need to remain on the veterinary-prescribed food. “It’s more expensive, but less so than continuous trips to the vet. If you find something that works, you can stick with it.”

It’s important to note that GI tract problems are often stress-related. “Whether their favorite person is away from home or they have a fun new cat tree, the adrenal glands secrete cortisol, which can lead to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut and can require treatment with antibiotics,” she explains. Taking care of your cat’s GI tract will help to ensure that you and your pet can enjoy each other’s company for many meals to come.