Feeding Kittens and Cats
Feeding your kitten is more complicated than you may think. There are a number of do’s and don’ts and also some very advisable techniques to follow.
The most important point is that kittens and cats are strict carnivores. This means that, unlike dogs, they exist in the wild on a diet entirely of animal origin. Such a predictable diet has allowed their body to specialise to a high degree.
This means that they are much less adaptable to different diets than most other species. Carbohydrates in cat foods can be a problem. Of the 23 amino acids used for protein synthesis, cats must obtain 11 of these from dietary sources.
Here are the most common mistakes cat owners make:
- Cats only being fed meat. Cats may be carnivores, but wild cats consume all of the prey, not just the muscle. The bone provides calcium, the innards supply B vitamins etc. Cats on meat-only diets will quickly develop weak bones prone to fracture, and grow poorly with a risk of lifelong deformities. Commercial cat diets allow for all the nutritional needs.
- Feeding dog food to cats. Dog food is deficient in taurine, niacin, Vitamin A, fatty acids, antioxidants and protein. It also contains too much carbohydrate.
- Making home-prepared food. While we are not opposed to this, it is very difficult to do well without a nutritionist. Human foods and diets which change are two big no no’s.
- Feeding cows milk. Cats have low activity of the lactase enzyme and are naturally lactose intolerant. Water is best.
- Feeding only fish or supermarket pet meat. Fish contains a thiaminase and supermarket pet meat often contains sulphite preservatives, both of which destroy thiamine (Vitamin B1). Cats fed exclusively on these diets can develop a fatal necrosis (death) of the grey matter in the brain.
- Believing that a cat will only eat a particular food. Cats are fussy animals, but you can definitely feed them the cat food your vet recommends. Read how to overcome fussy cats and why cats will refuse to eat.
Commercial Cat Food
The best for your cat or kitten is a complete and balanced commercially available food. These come in a wide range of prices and types. We believe there is a clear difference between the foods available in the supermarket and those at pet centres and veterinarians.
We recommend either Hills Vetessentials or Royal Canin foods. It doesn’t matter with these foods if you feed tinned, sachets or dry food as long as fresh water is available at all times. Kittens get fixated on certain foods very quickly so if you want your cat to try new foods or appreciate a variety it is important to start them very young, preferably under 12 weeks of age.
What?? No that is not a typo, cats really do seem to need access to fresh grass. Or at least they think they do, which is good enough for vets to recommend all cats be given the ability to eat some grass every day. If your cat is inside only, you can buy Cat Grass from the garden centre and grow it in a pot in a window. If cats don’t have access to grass, they will often chew cut flowers, many of which such as lilies are highly toxic.
This is optional but if you don’t supply a chewable food your cat’s teeth are likely to deteriorate and require dentistry. Adult cats have access to some very good complete and balanced dental diets such as Hills t/d. For more information, read our full article on Using the diet to keep cats teeth clean.
For kittens, many owners safely feed a raw chicken neck per day, much as a wild cat would consume their prey. It must be remembered that raw chicken is frequently contaminated with salmonella, and occasionally we do see diarrhoea after raw chicken use. It is also possible that the bones could become lodged and cause choking, although we have never seen this. The positive side is that many cats enjoy chicken necks much more than any other foods.
If you want to try this, you often need to start by mixing the chicken neck with other soft food. Most people package and freeze the necks individually and defrost one overnight. Do supervise when feeding chicken necks, and be prepared to find them behind the sofa.
If you want to feed treats, please read our guide to safe and healthy treats for cats.
How to Feed
A veterinary behaviourist recently asked the question: “Why do we feed cats in bowls?” It’s a good point, when there are so many more interesting ways. You can use Kitty Kongs, treat balls which release food as they roll, mazes or puzzles (we have a few in the clinic to show you).
The amount to feed is going to vary from cat to cat. If you are using a quality food, start with the recommended amounts on the packaging. Then check your cat’s weight and body condition every two weeks, and ask us if you are unsure. Ultimately, the amount fed is adjusted to be whatever is required to maintain a lean, healthy body condition.
Grendel (pictured) would be as fat as butter if he had his way. If you’re having trouble, visit our guide to getting a cat to lose weight and stay trim.
Water should be available at all times and changed daily. Be prepared for your cat or kitten being very fussy about the water type (some will only drink filtered water), placement (some prefer it away from food, some nearby) and container (most prefer large bowls filled nearly to the top). Some cats drink better if supplied with running water via a cat fountain or a very understanding owner with a tap. Read our full article about Getting cats to drink water.
Feeding times are a personal choice. However, when we see a kitten we usually recommend starting meal feeding straight away. By ‘meal’ we don’t mean the cat will eat it all at once; this is very rare. Instead, we want you to measure out half of the daily requirement at a set time, and give the cat free access. The food will usually be consumed within a few hours as the cat comes and goes. The important point is that the cat learns that when the food runs out, they have to wait until the next scheduled meal time.
If you choose to feed ‘ad lib’, that is leaving food available all the time, most kittens will be OK but adult cats will often become overweight. You will then have a very hard time convincing your adult cat to be restricted if they are accustomed to getting food on demand. Better to train them early.
We also observe that cats fed meals at a set time (instead of on demand) start to view their owners as ‘providers’ and generally become more affectionate and less likely to be ‘attack’ or ‘ambush’ cats!