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The Science and Art of Kitten Nutrition

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Imagine tripling, even quadrupling, your body weight in less than six months. Yikes! But such rapid weight gain is a must for a kitten’s survival. Kittens weigh just a few ounces at birth and, by 6 months of age, should weigh between 5 to 6 pounds. By their first birthdays, they should tip the scales at around 8 pounds (depending on breed and frame). Hitting that mark in a healthy way depends on us.

Mother’s milk

“Science tells us that the body has different demands on it at different stages of life,” says Dr. Kathryn Primm, a veterinarian and owner of the Applebrook Animal Hospital in Ooltewah, Tennessee, and host of the Nine Lives with Dr. Kat podcast on Pet Life Radio. “When kittens are growing, they are building brains, bones, muscles — everything.”

For at least the first four weeks of life, kittens rely on their mother’s milk to provide all the nutrients they need to survive and thrive.

“The ideal newborn kitten is to be with their mother, also known as a queen,” says Jackie Noble, director of the kitten nursery and placement services at the San Diego Humane Society. “The queen will provide nutrient-rich mother’s milk on demand, all while providing grooming, stimulating kittens to pass urine/feces and providing warmth and comfort.”

But for orphaned newborns, it quickly becomes a life-or-death situation. SDHS opened its 24-hours-a-day kitten nursery in 2009 to save the lives of more orphaned kittens. The kitten nursery is now a model program for other shelters in the nation.

“We identified underage kittens as the most ‘at risk’ group of animals in our county,” Jackie says. “Kittens were being euthanized simply because they were too young to eat and survive on their own. There weren’t enough foster homes available to help them grow, so the Kitten Nursery was developed to be a safety net for those kittens.”

Different foods for different stages

There is both a science and an art to kitten nutrition. All felines of all ages require protein, specifically, 11 essential amino acids in order to thrive. Kittens need about 30% to 50% of their food source in the form of protein.

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“Growing kittens require a lot of protein, fat and calcium along with a whole range of other nutrients like vitamins and minerals to help them grow and develop properly,” says Rosemarie Crawford, co-founder of the National Kitten Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to increasing survival rates of kittens.

For newborns, it often means getting their nutrients through bottle-feeding. The NKC offers helpful resources like a Feeding Guidelines Chart and Top Bottle-Feeding Hints on its website.

Still wondering what your kitten diet playbook should be? Here are some simple tips to get you in the game:

  1. Timing is everything. Kittens begin to wean between 4 and 5 weeks of age and can be transitioned to commercial dry and wet food by 6 weeks. Timing of these meals is crucial, as kittens are better able to digest foods when fed three or four mini meals a day.
  2. Probiotics can help. “Weaning can be a stressful time for a kitten and you will often see GI (gastrointestinal) upset,” Jackie says. “When weaning from formula or a mother’s milk to wet food, the transition will go smoother if you offer a supplement, such as a feline probiotic.”
  3. Hydration is key. Definitely provide fresh drinking water every day for your growing kitten to help her stay hydrated.
  4. Get expert help. Rosemarie says it is imperative to work closely with your veterinarian to determine what commercial kitten food your young feline needs as he grows and the ideal feeding schedule.
  5. Feed a variety. You want to prevent your kitten from growing into a fussy adult cat. Work with your veterinarian to select foods in a variety of flavors and textures. Expanding your kitten’s food palate may aid when he needs to be boarded, stay overnight at a veterinary clinic or needs to switch to a therapeutic diet due to a newly diagnosed medical condition.

And it’s mealtime … again! Time to play a key role in helping your kitten grow in a steady, healthy way.

Formula facts

For orphaned or abandoned newborn kittens, the only way they can get the nutrition needed is through bottle-feeding.

“Kitten formulas are high in protein and contain specific ratios of fat, calcium and other important nutrients, like taurine and lysine, which play a critical role in feline heart, muscle and eye development,” says Jackie Noble, director of San Diego Humane Society’s kitten nursery and placement services.

Samantha Jackson, medical director for the Bitty Kitty Brigade, a nonprofit group based in Maple Grove, Minnesota, advises to work with veterinarians in your area to select quality kitten formulas. Her group uses Fox Valley Kitten formula.

“We hear of some crazy concoctions people find online for feeding neonatal kittens, and these tend to cause digestive upset and do not provide the nutrition that these kittens require,” Samantha says. “In a pinch, I would do goat’s milk if it was available and nothing else was.”

Bottle-feeding a kitten can often be a bit tricky. Rosemarie Crawford, co-founder of the National Kitten Coalition, offers this bottle-feeding tip if a kitten starts to suckle from a bottle, but then stops due to a vacuum occurring within the bottle. That prevents a kitten from sucking hard enough to get more milk out.

“A simple solution is to loosen the cap of the bottle ever so slightly, just enough to let a little bit of air to get around the threads of the screw-on-top bottle cap,” she says. “As the kitten removes milk while suckling, air is able to go into the bottle (preventing a vacuum effect) and the kitten can continue suckling his fill.”

She says to support a kitten’s head with a finger on each side of his cheek to keep him in the correct, upright position. Plus, the extra support on his cheeks often helps the kitten to latch on to the bottle better.

And, if the young kitten becomes too wiggly or excited, Jackie suggests you gently groom the body with a toothbrush, as it mimics the feel of a queen licking and helps the kitten calm down, latch on to the bottle and resume suckling.

FEEDING NO-NOS

Most kittens love to eat, but there are definitely foods that make the no-no list. Topping this list:

  • Cow’s milk, as most felines are lactose intolerant
  • Human baby food that contains garlic or onions, two dangerous ingredients to kittens
  • Raw eggs due to the risk of them being contaminated with Salmonella bacteria
  • Grapes or raisins, as they are high in sugar and can cause gastric upset
  • Sushi, as raw fish contains an enzyme that can destroy thiamine, an essential B vitamin for cats

Start ‘Em Off Right

Here are just a few examples of diets that meet the specific needs of growing kittens.

Fox Valley Day One Kitten formula $14.10. store.foxvalleynutrition.com

Royal Canin Mother and Babycat $9.49 (3-ounces, pack of 6). Available on chewy.com

Purina ProPlan Focus Kitten Food $28.32 (3 ounces, case of 24). Available on chewy.com

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