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.

Does Food Taste Different to Cats and Dogs?

Though cats and dogs are the most common household pets in North America, the similarities practically end there. Their needs and preferences for food, water and socialization are quite distinct. Below, Illinois-based cat- and dog-nutrition expert Linda Case and Dr. Trisha Joyce of New York City Veterinary Specialists reveal some key differences.

Omnivore vs. Carnivore
As cats and dogs were becoming domesticated, they developed according to the food sources available to them. “The evolutionary history of the dog suggests a predilection for a diet that is more omnivorous in nature, while the history of the cat indicates that this species has consumed a purely carnivorous diet throughout its evolutionary development,” explains Case.

Cats evolved into meat-eaters that need a whole lot of protein (about 26 percent of their total caloric intake), but dogs can subsist on a more varied diet (only about 5 percent protein). Joyce says dogs can eat many different foods, but cats would have serious nutritional deficits because they require protein from meat.

Their taste buds differ as well. While both dogs and cats have a high proportion of taste buds that are sensitive to amino acid flavors (or proteins), only dogs respond to sweet foods. This means, for one, that you don’t have to hide that pan of brownies from your cat. “You have to be careful to keep a dog away from chocolate,” says Joyce. “It’s dangerous for them. Cats can’t metabolize it either, but the concern is not the same because they would never eat the massive quantities of it that a dog would.”

Pack Animal vs. Loner
Both dogs and cats become accustomed to eating at specific times, but only dogs seem influenced by the social setting of the meal. “Dogs tend to increase food intake when consuming food in the presence of other dogs in their social group,” says Case. “This process is called social facilitation.” For most dogs, social facilitation causes a moderate increase in interest concerning food, as well as a tendency to eat faster.

Dogs are so prone to the influence of others that even their owners can impact their food choices. In one study summarized by Case, a group of dogs had the choice between a small and a large portion of kibble. Most chose the large. But when their owners were brought in and the dogs watched as they chose the smaller plate, their own choice changed in the second trial, as they chose the tiny serving. A similar experiment used equal portions in two different bowls. Each dog was consistently more interested in whichever bowl its owner preferred.

Joyce adds that cats seem to be emotional eaters. “My clients often tell me that their cats go to the food bowl when they’re happy, like when the owner arrives home.”

Thirst vs. Dry Mouth
While both dogs and cats need an adequate supply of clean water, the definition of “adequate” differs between the two. “Dogs typically consume more water per unit body weight than cats do, and respond more rapidly to mild dehydration by voluntarily increasing their water consumption,” says Case.

Cats’ relatively weak thirst drive is attributed to their evolution from a desert-dwelling species. As a result of low water consumption, cats produce more concentrated urine than dogs, which helps to conserve the little water they do take in. However, it also leaves them at greater risk for bladder stones, rock-like deposits that can interfere with their ability to urinate, causing symptoms like blood in the urine and passing urine outside of the litter box.

One Meal a Day vs. Many
“Cats are natural grazers,” says Joyce, noting that it’s more common for cats to be on free-feed diets than dogs. The reason for this may be partly a function of anatomy. While the stomach of each animal acts as a reservoir for the body, allowing food to be ingested as a meal rather than continuously throughout the day, a dog’s stomach expands more readily. “The proximal section of the stomach is capable of expansion, a function that is assumed to be of greater importance for dogs, which tend to eat large meals at a given time,” says Case.

Keeping the above differences in mind, pet owners can rest assured that they are adhering to what nature intended -- and continues to insist on.

Organizations That Feed Cats When Owners Can’t

In difficult times, cat lovers all over the country have separately rallied to make sure that no cat is left unfed. Grassroots pet food banks have sprung up in most regions, with local humane societies offering contact information for needy or infirm pet owners in their communities. Below, organizers and satisfied customers tell their stories and share tips on how to receive food bank services.

The Central Florida Animal Pantry
When Erica Wilson and her 9-year-old son, Zach, went to a Florida shelter to find a companion for their dog, Brandi, Zach found himself face-to-face with a problem he never knew existed: homeless animals abandoned because their owners couldn’t afford to feed them.

“We knew we needed to do something,” says Wilson. What began as a Cub Scout food drive grew into a full-on food pantry in the spring of 2009, when a distribution location in Longwood, Fla., was donated for their use. They distribute an average of 600 pounds of food a week, much of it donated by major manufacturers.

“We meet people from all walks of life here, from those who’ve struggled all their lives to those who aren’t used to asking for help, but now have no other choice,” says Wilson. The organization also provides food to the disabled and elderly as well.

Tree House Humane Society
When Marcus Newell of Chicago, Ill., lost his job four years ago, he wasn’t sure how he was going to continue to support himself and his family -- let alone his two cats, Diamond and Whiskers. He mentioned his concerns to a worker at public assistance, who told him about Tree House Humane Society, a no-kill cat shelter in Chicago. Tree House also runs a pet food pantry to make food available to owners who might otherwise no longer be able to adequately provide for their companion animals.

Newell has been delighted with the quality and quantity of the food Tree House has provided, and also with the time he’s gotten to spend with other cats when he picks up his supplies.

Save Our Pets Food Bank
In 2008, former CEO Ann King of Atlanta, Ga., had a 30,000-square-foot building and a dream. She wanted to fill her warehouse with pet food and hand it out to people who could no longer afford to feed their animals. King approached a local food pantry -- specializing in feeding people -- and asked if they could help her to distribute her wares. “They told me they didn’t think there was a need, which I knew was crazy,” says King.

King got going without them, and in the last three years her food bank has helped over 700 families and 200 rescue organizations and shelters in Georgia through donations from independent supporters and pet food manufacturers alike.

“I hear stories about the lengths people have gone to try to keep their pets with them,” says King. “One woman was living in her car with her two cats. We helped her feed them, and eventually to find housing that accepted pets. Meeting our clients makes me feel grateful.”

Getting Help

  • Locate a pet food pantry near you by calling your local humane society for contact information.
  • Make sure your pet is spayed or neutered before applying, as many banks make this a requirement for membership. They will connect you to low-cost spay and neuter options if your pet has never been fixed.
  • Provide proof of income (or lack thereof). While the income caps at different pantries vary, most require some type of proof of financial hardship, be that a copy of your latest income tax return, a copy of your most recent pay stub, or papers like a social security reward letter or a disability check stub.

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.