Feeding your kitten properly from birth to adulthood is the best way to keep your pet healthy and happy.

By Doug Jimerson
October 16, 2020
Advertisement
Benjamin Torode / Getty

Kittens have very different nutritional needs than adult cats. That means they need to be fed foods that are specially designed just for them. Most of the time, a mother cat will take care of a kitten’s nutritional needs from the day it’s born until it’s about 4 to 6 weeks old. And if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing to feed an orphaned newborn kitten, those fluffy bundles of joy will be completely dependent on you for their nutrients.

Feeding a Newborn Kitten

In an ideal situation, the kittens’ mother will nurse them for their first few weeks. The nutrients in her milk helps the newborn kittens transition from milk to solid food. Consuming these important nutrients in her protein-rich milk helps form the kittens’ immune systems and offers protection from disease.

If you stumble upon a litter of new kittens whose mother is unable to feed them, these orphaned kitties will need to be bottle-fed a suitable replacement for their mother’s milk. Newborn kittens up to 4 weeks old should be fed a kitten milk replacement formula (either commercial or homemade). Carlene Strandell, founder and director of the non-profit Smitten with Kittens, a foster-based kitten rescue that operates in Tallahassee, Fl., says you need just two things for feeding a newborn: a kitten bottle with a nipple, and kitten replacement formula. Once you have those two essential items, then you can begin to bottle feed the kitten their special formula.

When to feed a newborn kitten depends on how frequently they need to eat. Strandell says kittens under 2 weeks old need to feed every 2 hours (at least). Think that’s a lot? Compared to older cats who may only eat once a day, it sure does feel like it. But Strandell says not to worry about overfeeding a newborn. “When a kitten is full, it will stop eating,” she says. “A newborn kitten will turn its head when it has had enough.” Kittens who are 2 to 4 weeks of age should be bottle fed every 3 to 4 hours. For more details about when to feed a kitten formula, check out this feeding schedule chart. 

Feeding Kittens 4 to 5 weeks Old 

By the time a kitten is about 4 weeks old, it’s often ready to start eating solid food. Introduce solid food slowly into their diet by mixing a little canned kitten food with milk replacer on a tablespoon. It may take a few tries, but eventually, your kitten will be interested enough to begin lapping up the mixture on its own. Sometimes it helps to gently rub a tiny bit of canned food on the kitten’s lips to give them a little sampling of what’s available. Never rush this process. A kitten will begin eating solid foods on their own schedule—a timeline that can vary from kitten to kitten. 

Meanwhile, keep offering milk replacer in a bottle to make sure the kitten is maintaining their weight and getting all the nutrition they require. Weighing your kitten every day or so is also a good way to be sure your pet is gaining weight and developing properly. Make sure to provide a shallow bowl of fresh water once the kitten reaches 4 weeks of age.

Feeding Kittens 6 to 8 Weeks Old

When a kitten is 6 to 8 weeks old, it should be thoroughly weaned from the bottle and transitioned to solid foods. At this time, offer only food that’s been specially formulated for kittens. It’s a good idea to mix dry and canned food together so your pet experiences both at a young age. As your kitten ages, you can switch to an all-dry or all-canned diet. You should be feeding a kitten this age three to four times per day, depending on their appetite. It’s also important to keep a clean, shallow bowl of fresh water available at all times to keep your kitten hydrated.

Feeding Kittens 8 Weeks to 6 Months Old...And Beyond

Between 8 weeks and 6 months old, continue feeding your kitten three to four times per day. Only offer food formulated especially for kittens that says “complete and balanced” on the label. By the time your kitten is 6 months old, you can cut back meals to twice a day until they are a year old. 

Choosing the Best Kitten Food

When it comes to kitten food, quality counts. Choose only food that has been certified by  Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), which establishes nutritional standards for complete and balanced pet foods. This means that the food has been tested to make sure it is properly balanced for your kitten’s growing needs. If you’ve adopted a kitten from a shelter, find out what the kitten was eating previously and stick with that diet to avoid stomach upset. 

Feeding a Stray Kitten

Sadly, in the spring and fall, it’s not uncommon to find a stray kitten in your yard or on the street. Stray kittens will need the same food and mealtimes as home-raised kittens, but you should take it to a veterinarian as soon as possible to better determine the kitten’s age and to check for parasites that could affect the animal’s growth. 

What to Feed a Kitten That Develops Diarrhea

Loose, liquidy stools are not normal in kittens. Diarrhea in kittens can be caused by parasites, food issues, or something more serious like an underlying medical issue. Because diarrhea in your kittens can quickly lead to dehydration, replace the water in your kitten’s formula with unflavored Pedialyte solution to provide the glucose and electrolytes your pet needs. If your pet develops diarrhea, you need to quickly get your kitty to a veterinarian as soon as possible. 

When to Switch to Adult Food

It’s time to make the switch to adult cat food when the kitten reaches its first birthday. Avoid leaving food out all day for the kitten to snack on. If you’re able to hold their food until routine feeding times, it’s much easier to keep a closer watch of how much they’re eating. That way, if your cat is not eating enough—either because they simply don’t like the food, or for more serious health issues—you’ll know quickly so you can make a change and contact your vet if needed. Free-feeding your cat (leaving bowls of food out) can also lead to overeating and weight problems as your pet grows older, so creating scheduled mealtimes can help you keep an eye on any issues.