Feeding Kittens: a Guide From Newborn to 6 months+

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Whether you are housing a stray kitten, fostering kittens for a local shelter, or adopting kittens of your own, you will need to feed them! But kittens are complicated little mammals. What do you feed them and when? How often? When are they ready for solid food, wet or dry, and how do you transition them? When do they stop eating kitten food and start on adult food? Let’s get into it.

Feeding kittens

Kittens have different feeding needs at different stages of kitten hood. Baby kittens drink solely milk. Then, kittens may using gruel to transition to wet food. Once kittens are a little bit older, they will be ready for dry kibble.

Feeding kittens Milk

When kittens are first born, like all mammals, they nurse from their mother. If you are fostering newborn kittens with a mother cat, you’ll mostly be keeping the mom cat fed so she can take care of her babies. If there is no mother cat around, you’ll have to bottle feed the kittens.

What to Know When a Mother Cat is Nursing Kittens

A nursing mother cat should be fed kitten food. Kitten food is more calorically dense, and nursing mothers need extra nutrition and energy while feeding a litter of kittens. Especially if your mother cat was a stray or very young (a common scenario), she is likely already undernourished and struggling to get enough food in.

Offer the mother cat wet kitten food and dry kitten food. Try a different kinds if she isn’t eating enough. Calorie-rich kitten food will go a long way toward filling her reserves and helping her make nutrious milk for her kittens.

Be sure to observe that each kitten is getting adequate time nursing on the mother cat. Kittens can push and wrestle each other out of the way. This is normal behavior and adorable. However, if one kitten consistently doesn’t get enough milk, he may not make it. In this case you can try to bottle feed this kitten until he’s big enough to get a good spot at the nips.

A baby kitten nursing on a mama cat
When you have a mama cat available, feeding the baby kittens is easy!

Bottle Feeding Kittens

If you are feeding bottle babies who need milk but don’t have a mama, you’ll make up bottles of kitten formula. Just like human babies sometimes eat formula, kittens need a special kitten milk replacement formula.

Preparation to Bottle Feed

To bottle feed a kitten, you’ll need the formula and a small bottle. A soft hand towel can be useful as well. Follow the instructions on the kitten formula to prepare the milk (if needed – some are pre-mixed) making sure it is the right consistency and temperature. The bottle nipple may need a hole punched in the tip – follow the instructions on the package. Be sure your kitten is warm, because cold kittens won’t be able to digest formula.

Kitten Positioning For Bottle Feeding

Once the bottle is prepared, hold the kitten carefully with its feet facing down – do not hold the kitten on its back. A reclined kitten can easily aspirate formula, leading to a life-threatening lung infection. Think of the position a kitten would be in nursing from a mother cat. Placing a soft towel under the kitten’s feet will help it get into the mood for eating because the towel will feel like its mother’s fur.

Feeding a Kitten From a Bottle

Carefully slip the tip of the nipple into the kitten’s mouth. It make take a few tries, but the kitten should start suckling after a minute or two. If a kitten is reluctant, try stroking the kitten’s head or back, as if a mother cat were licking the kitten. Signs that the kitten is successfully suckling include ears wiggling back and forth, bubbles trickling up in the bottle,

Hold the bottle at a 45 degree angle, pulling slightly against the kitten’s suction. Let the kitten nurse until it’s finished. The kitten’s belly will likely be full and round after a full feed. Weighing the kitten on a kitchen scale before and after bottle feeding will help you track exactly how much a kitten is taking in, if needed.

How Often to Bottle Feed Kittens

Kittens up to 2 weeks old should be eating every 2 or 3 hours around the clock. This is 8-12 feedings per 24 hours period. For example, they might eat at 8am, 10am, 12pm, 3pm, 5pm, 7pm, 9pm, 12am, 3am, and 6am. This schedule is very intense, but it only lasts for two weeks. Their tummies are very small and they need to eat frequently so they get the calories they need, keep their blood sugar stable, and don’t get dehydrated.

Kittens 2-4 weeks old need to eat every 3 or 4 hours around the clock. This is 6-8 feedings per 24 hours period. For example, they might eat at 8am, 11am, 2pm, 6pm, 9pm, 12am, and 4am. They are able to eat a little bit more at each feeding, and are strong enough for go an extra hour without food. If you are bottle feeding young kittens, you’ll be getting a little more sleep during this time.

Once kittens are 3-4 weeks old, they will start the transition to solid food. By 4-5 weeks old, they will likely be fully on solid food and no longer need to be bottle fed throughout the night as they will have access to wet and dry food at night. At this age, you won’t need to wake at night to feed them. Yay!

How Much To Bottle Feed Kittens

Young kittens will eat about 8 milliliters (mls) of formula per ounce of body weight per day. For a 4oz newborn kitten, this means approximately 4mls of formula per feeding (for a total of 32 oz over 8 feedings for the day). For a 12oz 3 week old kitten, this means a total of 96mls of formula for the day. If this kitten eats 6 times per day, that means he should be eating 16mls of formula at each feeding.

Kitten Feeding Chart

Kitten feeding chart displaying age, feeding schedule, and feeding amounts per feed and per day from birth to 5 weeks+
Kitten feeding chart displaying age, feeding schedule, and feeding amounts per feed and per day from birth to 5 weeks+

Troubleshooting

If the kitten is struggling with bottle feeding at first, syringe feeding may be a good stand-in until he gets the hang of the bottle. To syringe feed, suction some formula into a syringe and gentle, slowly push it into the front of the kitten’s mouth. Be sure to follow all the guidelines above regarding kitten warmth and positioning to ensure that the kitten is benefitting from this process.

What Kind of Food Should I be Feeding Kittens?

Cats are carnivores who, living in the wild, would stay healthy eating a diet of whole, fresh prey. However, this is not likely going to be your food of choice for your baby cats. And if you are fostering kittens with a local shelter, a raw food diet is likely going to be frowned upon for a number of practical reasons, including consistency of care and monitoring nutrient intake.

A mother cat feeding her kittens
Kittens should nurse from their mothers or receive a kitten milk replacement until they are eating enough solid food to thrive.

Feeding Kittens Wet Food

Wet food is one of the best options to for feeding young kittens, older kittens, and adult cats. There are many great store-bought kitten food options available. Wet food is good for feeding kittens because they typically love it, and the moisture keeps them hydrated. It’s also easy for them to eat if they have sore gums due to teething.

When Can Kittens Eat Wet Food?

When the kittens are between 3 and 4 weeks old, they will be ready to start weaning onto wet food. For bottle fed kittens, biting or chewing on the nipple is an indication that they may be ready to start weaning kittens onto solids. Readiness for weaning can also correlate with the emergence of the kitten’s premolars. Premolars are the teeth just behind the pointy canines.

When a kitten's premolars start to emerge, the kitten may be ready to wean onto solid food.
When a kitten’s premolars start to emerge, the kitten may be ready to wean onto solid food.

Wet food is soft, and can be thinned out to be even softer (see below), so it’s a great place to start for kittens with developing jaw muscles and a just few tiny teeth. Wet food contains a high water content, so it’s less likely to be dehydrating to young kittens like dry food can be. And by choosing a well-rounded wet food option, your growing kitten will get all the vitamins, minerals, cofactors, and calories he needs to stay strong and healthy.

Note that just because a kitten starts eating wet food, they may still nurse from the mother cat for several more weeks. As long as the mother cat isn’t scheduled to be spayed yet and she is tolerant of the kittens nursing, this is great for the kitten’s long term and short term health. The mother cat’s milk contains many nutrients and antibodies that help kittens thrive that aren’t present in wet kitten food. And, it’s a calming, relaxing bonding activity that contributes to your kitten’s sense of well being and long term behavior.

How to Wean Kittens

If you are bottle feeding kittens that are transitioning to wet food, they will still need to be bottle fed until they are able to eat enough to sustain themselves. You should be able to slowly taper off the bottles over a few days or a week. Most healthy kittens will be fine eating entirely solid food by 5 weeks old.

For nursing kittens, leaving wet kitten food available to them is often all that’s needed. They will observe as their mom eats the wet food, and generally dive right in – literally. Learning how to eat is messy business! It can be so fun to watch tiny kitties dive their paws and faces enthusiastically into their food. working hard to learn how to get some or any of it into their mouths.

Bottle babies can learn to eat the same way as nursing kittens. However, a big difference is that they don’t have a mama cat to teach them how to eat the wet kitten food. It may sound silly, but for a kitten who’s never eaten food before, it takes some learning before they get the hang of it. 

Weaning kittens onto solid food by syringe feeding them gruel.

Gruel as a Transition Between Milk and Solid Food

Some kittens will see a bowl of wet food and dive right in. Others may struggle more with transition. For these kittens, it can help to thin the wet food 50/50 with kitten formula. This way they can transition more easily between suckling/slurping and chewing solid food.

Kittens also need to understand that wet food is food. It’s not coming out of a nipple, so some kittens get confused. This is usually remedied by getting a little bit of the food into their mouths. Having them lick the gruel mixture off your finger is one way to get them in the eating groove. You can also hand feed them small pieces of wet food, or syringe feed them gruel. Tapping a little dot of gruel on their nose can also get them licking the food and curious about where this new taste and texture is coming from.

The Best Kitten Food

Just like with human food, the highest quality kitten food will be a whole, unprocessed food. A raw food such as homemade raw food or a pre-packaged raw food are going to be the most similar to a kitten’s natural, wild diet.

The next best choice is a high quality wet food. Look for one with ingredients you can pronounced, and find a brand that discusses the sourcing of their ingredients. Avoid “flavors” if possible, and something grain-free would be ideal (since cats haven’t evolved to eat grains).

Finally, dry kibble is a highly processed food. The ingredients are ground up, pressurized, heated, and extruded. These ingredients have to have a long shelf life, and the nutrients may not be preserved. However, you can still find a high quality dry food that your kitten will love, that will nourish your growing companion, and provide all the convenience and practicality that we rely on dry cat food for.

Raw Food for Kittens?

If you are interested in feeding your kittens raw food, Darwin’s is a great option. Their cat food page has a calculator to let you know exactly how much of their raw food to feed your kitten based on her current weight. Raw Paws Pet Food is another great option with a number of raw cat food offerings.

If you’d like to make your own raw kitten food at home, there are guidebooks available such as this book or this book that contain essential nutritional information and recipes.

How Much to Feed a 4-week+ Old Kitten

By 4 or 5 weeks, your kitten will most likely not be drinking formula from the bottle any longer (but may still be nursing if the mother cat is available – that’s normal!) From this point on, it’s best to let kittens self-regulate their food intake. As long as they are eating healthy food and gaining weight steadily, kittens will eat until they are full.

By allowing them to eat as much as they want at a young age, you are helping them to learn how to self-regulate food intake for their entire lives. Obese adult cats are typically either eating a low-quality or inflammatory cat food, or they have experienced food scarcity at some point in their life and therefore eat as much as they can every time they encounter food in case another food shortage occurs. Feeding your kittens as much quality food as they want helps them to learn that food is plentiful and they don’t need to load up in case of a future storage.

In addition to this, kittens will grow to be different sizes as adults based on their genetic backgrounds. Even kittens wishing the same litter can grow up to be different sized adults. By letting your kitten eat as much as he wants, you’re ensuring that he gets the right amount of nutrition to accommodate his genetically appropriate grow pattern. Once your kitten is about 6 months old, his nutritional needs should even out. At this point you’ll be able to stop free feeding and feed him a consistent, measured amount of food.

How Much Wet Food to Feed a Kitten

That being said, we don’t want to waste any kitten food. The amount of food you provide will need depend on each kitten and the type of food you are feeding, but here are some guidelines. You could start with 1/8 to 1/4 cup of wet food per kitten 3 times a day. If they finish the food, take note and give them more. Be sure to always have dry food available to them as well. Kittens at 3 or 4 weeks won’t be able to eat much dry food, but by 5 weeks they will be chowing down on it. Since dry kibble is easier to leave down, give them a 1/2c in the beginning of the day, allowing them to munch when they are hungry. Replenish the dry food as needed.

Free feeding kittens wet food is an excellent choice.

Feeding Kittens Dry Food

A high quality dry kitten food is a good practical choice to feed kittens. Dry food can remain available to them throughout the day without getting crusty like wet food might. Be sure to choose a kitten food rather than an adult food to make sure that the kittens are fed enough calories and nutrients.

When Can Kittens Eat Dry Food?

Dry food can be difficult for kittens to eat before they get more teeth. However, by 5 or 6 weeks, most kittens will be happily crunching through a tasty kibble. You may choose to add a little water to the kib/ble at first to soften it for them.

How Much Dry Food Should a Kitten Eat?

Kittens under 6 months of age should be permitted to free feed. In addition to wet food, give them access to dry food at all times. A good place to start is to provide each kitten with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of dry food at each feeding. If they finish it, give them more. The kittens will eat what they need and leave the rest for later. Once the kitten is 6 months old, her rapid growth will have slowed, and her meals can be more consistent. At that point you’ll be able to measure her serving size based on her weight.

The Best Dry Kitten Food

Dry kitten food comes in a wide range of quality. While all of them should fulfill your kitten’s most basic nutritional needs, many of them are poor quality and there are frequent recalls of unsafe pet food. The cheapest dry food will be manufactured using flavoring, meat by-products, and grains and other filler ingredients. Some of these ingredients can upset a sensitive kitten’s tummy or impact his digestion so that he can’t absorb as many nutrients from the food.

Look for a less processed dry kitten food with quality meat as the first ingredient. Grain-free dry foods are a great choice, as grains aren’t nutritionally appropriate for cats and can upset little kitten tummies. There are lots of tasty options for your kitten to try!

Feeding Kittens FAQs

Can kittens drink regular milk?

Sometimes, especially if someone finds a stray kitten unexpectedly, the question will arise if the kitten can be fed regular cow milk from the grocery store. After all, we see cats drinking milk in cartoons and comics, right?
Unfortunately the pasteurization process that our milk goes through makes it unsuitable for cats, especially young kittens. It can cause tummy aches and diarrhea. This can result in dehydration and a medical emergency very quickly in a tiny kitten.
If you are looking after a young kitten, be sure to procure a kitten milk replacer formula and feed them with a bottle until they are big enough to wean.

When can you introduce gruel to kittens?

You can start introducing gruel (wet food mixed with formula) to kittens between 3 and 4 weeks. You can give them gruel in a small bowl, have them lick it off your finger, or feed them small amounts with a feeding syringe.

Is it bad to switch wet cat food?

Switching wet food is not a bad thing to do. Changing up the wet food you feed your kitten or cat is a great way to ensure they get an even more balanced intake of nutrients. They will be exposed to a wider degree of yummy flavors and ingredients, which makes life more interesting for them. Be sure to inspect the quality of the ingredients in any new food you provide, and take note of any preferences your cat may have for certain ingredients or flavors in different wet foods.

How long can kittens go without eating?

A newborn kitten will not survive more than 10 or 12 hours without milk or formula. A month-old kitten might survive a day or two. Cats need to eat frequently or their livers will become stressed and start to fail. Depending on the health of the animal, an adult cat may start to experience liver failure after 3 days of fasting. Kittens have higher metabolic needs and smaller livers and need to eat much more frequently to survive and thrive.

Should kittens eat wet or dry food?

Young kittens need to eat wet food as they adjust from drinking milk or formula. Wet food is easier for them to ingest, and easier for their tummies to digest. It also helps to prevent dehydration which is a risk to such tiny animals. As the kittens get older, you can also incorporate dry food into their routine. Kittens will benefit from eating wet food throughout kittenhood and their adult lives.

Feeding kittens Summary

There are a lot of moving parts when it comes to feeding kittens! The best food for each kitten depends on his age, health status, and more. Once you’re familiar with all the options, you’ll be able to make the best choice for your kitten’s diet!

Feeding kittens from newborn to 6 months and older
A guide to feeding kittens from newborn to 6 months and older

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