What to Feed a Kitten
By Terry Kaye
Weaning a kitten is the process of transitioning the kitten from mother’s milk to solid food. It’s an important part of the kitten’s development, and needs to be done at the right time and in the right way. Normally the queen, or mother cat, will handle kitten weaning on her own. But when the queen has trouble producing milk, or when a litter of kittens is orphaned, we need to intervene. Here are some tips for smooth and successful kitten weaning.
Before Beginning the Weaning Process
When it’s at all possible, kittens should be exposed to some mother’s milk, especially within the first 12 to 24 hours of life. The first milk, or colostrum, contains antibodies that the kitten can only absorb during this time.
If a queen has an extremely large litter of kittens and cannot produce enough milk, each kitten should still get some of her milk. “Some milk is better than no milk,” says Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at Petplan. If she cannot produce any milk due to mastitis or other issues, another nursing mother may accept the kittens if they are close to the size of her own.
If no nursing cat is available, you can feed a kitten milk replacement formula with a nursing bottle or syringe. In an emergency, Benson recommends mixing a cup of whole milk, an egg yolk, a drop of liquid multivitamin, and three Tums in a blender; but this is strictly for temporary use, to get some nutrition into the kittens, and you should switch to formula as soon as possible.
You’ll be bottle feeding for three to four weeks. Always warm the bottle in a cup of hot water and taste test it yourself to check the temperature and that it hasn’t soured. If you’re using a powder formula, store unmixed powder in the freezer.
Feed slowly but frequently: every two to three hours during the day. At night, don’t worry about it; they’ll wake you when they’re hungry. If they’re sleeping, let them sleep, and get some sleep yourself.
When to Wean Kittens
Normally, the kitten weaning process begins at about four weeks of age. “With mom, they’ll start to try to eat her food, and she’ll push them away from her,” says Benson. But if you’re weaning a kitten that has been orphaned, you can start a little earlier, between three and four weeks.
“When they start biting and chewing on the bottle, they’re ready,” says Benson. At this point, you can start to introduce kitten food.
How to Wean Kittens
To begin weaning a kitten, mix the kitten food with formula so they recognize the taste. Smear the mixture around their mouth with your finger and let them lick it off. Once they get used to the taste, they’ll seek it out elsewhere. Then you can introduce them to lapping from a bowl. Monitor them so they don’t lap too fast, and never push their face into the bowl, which could cause them to inhale the mixture and develop pneumonia.
Between the fourth and sixth week, gradually transition the weaning kittens to dry food, supplementing with formula if needed. Use canned food or dry kitten food mixed with water; at first, add a lot of water, and then reduce the amount of water as the kitten matures.
A general schedule for kitten weaning might be:
- Weeks 4-5: Give wet or moistened dry food, mixed with formula to form a slush. Supplement with formula if the kitten is not taking to the new food, to make sure it gets enough calories.
- Weeks 5-6: The weaning kittens should start to nibble on the kibble, slightly moistened with water.
- Weeks 6-7: By now, the kitten weaning process is complete, and they should be eating all solid food by week seven.
Other Kitten Weaning Tips
When you are weaning a kitten onto solid food, it’s important to use a food formulated specifically for kittens. These formulas have the higher levels of calories, protein and calcium that growing kittens need. If you are caring for a mother cat and her litter, it’s okay for the mom cat to eat the same kitten food while she’s nursing.
Weaning kittens must be kept warm. Build a nest by lining a high sided box or pet carrier with towels. Benson also recommends adding a layer of diapers above the towels, cutting the leg holes to make them lie flat. “They’re going to get messy,” he says, and this makes clean-up much easier. Place a heating pad or hot water bottle under the towels on one half of the box. This gives the kittens plenty of heat, but also a place to cool off if they are too hot.
Kitten weaning is a natural process; they may just need a little help from you. The key: a little patience and a lot of love.