Feeding Your Kitten For the First Few Days Home
Dr. Nicholas Dodman
There are lots of things you will need to think about and plan for prior to bringing home a new kitten. How to feed, what to feed, and when to feed ... are just a few of the concerns. Whether you get the new kitten from a breeder or from a shelter or pound, it is a good idea to find out what the kitten was eating there so that you can continue on the same nutritional theme, at least for the first few days. When you think about it, your new kitten is coping with enough change as it transitions from its previous abode and, perhaps, the company of its mother and littermates to its new home environment. The last thing it needs is a simultaneous change in diet.
How, for the first couple days?
Keeping the kitten's food the same is one way to minimize the stress of the move. It is a way to bridge the gap between the life that was and the life that is to be. Before you take your kitten home, ask for a sample of the food he/she has been eating to get you through the first few days. If you plan to change to another brand of food later, do so after the first couple days and do it gradually by mixing the new food in with the old food. Make the transition over 2 or 3 days until by day 4 you are feeding all new food. This will help encourage your new kitten to keep eating, minimize stress, and prevent intestinal upsets that may manifest as vomiting or diarrhea.
What to Feed?
Most breeders and shelter workers know that kittens should be fed proprietary kitten food designed to supply all the nutrients that the rapidly growing kitten needs. Some people refer to such rations as "growth formula." However referred to, the ration should be complete and balanced. It should say as much on the package label. The food should be AAFCO approved. AAFCO is the Association of American Feed Control Officials and their stamp of approval means that the food has undergone rigorous testing and been found satisfactory for the label indication i.e. feeding rapidly growing kittens.
The question might arise, "Should I feed my kitten dry food or canned food?" The answer is either, or a combination of the two, will do just fine. Dry food is less expensive but wet food is more palatable to most kittens. Dry food can be rendered a little more odoriferous and exciting by adding a spoonful of hot water on top of it to bring out the aromas and soften the texture. Some new owners want to feed their kitten "ad libitum" (free choice) so that the food is down all the time and the kitten simply grazes whenever it's hungry. This is not always a good idea as some kittens may eat too much and become overweight. If the "ad libitum" approach is to be employed, dry food is the way to go, as it keeps better.
When to Feed?
Kittens that are around eight weeks old should probably be fed three or four times a day at first though the frequency of feeding can be reduced to two to three times a day by 12 weeks. Feeding a little and often is a good practice because it permits the owner to observe the kitten eating several times a day and thus to note its eating habits. At this stage in a kitten's life, its "gastrocolic reflex" is still quite active, so once a kitten has finished eating, it will often head straight for the litterbox (that gives you a chance to observe another important facet of your kitten's bodily functions).
Where to Feed?
Another question that arises is, "Where should I feed my kitten?" The answer to this question is that it doesn't much matter, but the location should be consistent to help the newcomer learn the ropes. Feeding in the kitchen is usually a good idea, as the kitten will be near family members and kitchen floors are usually fairly easy to clean. But there is nothing wrong with feeding a kitten in the bathroom or living room, for that matter.
How Much to Feed?
"How much should I feed?" might be the next question that springs to the mind of the new kitten owner. Not too little and not too much, is the trite (and correct) answer. "But how do I know the right amount?" First, let the manufacturer's label instructions be a guide for you. There will be a range of quantity depending on your kitten's size. Feed the middle of the range. If the kitten gulps his food down within 2 or 3 minutes and is looking for more, its meal size may need to be increased. If there is still food left in the bowl after 15 or 20 minutes, the meal size should probably be reduced. As with people, caloric requirements vary from one individual to another, even when they are the same body weight. The ultimate gauge as to whether you're feeding too much or too little is the kitten's size and condition. A normal kitten should have a waist that is evident when the kitten is viewed from above. If the kitten assumes tubular dimensions, or its "cod fat" swings from side to side as it walks, it's time to cut back on the amount fed. When meal feeding, especially if wet food is used, the food should be picked up after about 15 or 20 minutes so that none is left lying around. This assures that the kitten will eat at specified mealtimes, like a person, and will enable the kitten's owner to observe its eating habits.
Another question is, "Should I feed my kitten treats and, if so, what is best?" Healthy treats are the way to go. Part of the kitten's normal ration can be held back to be supplied periodically during the day to reward desirable behaviors. Wet food is more of a reward than dry food and some can be put aside to serve as treats. Alternatively, proprietary cat treats can be used. The important thing about treats is that they should be small and should not be given too often or they will imbalance the diet. It is a bad idea to feed kittens human food, which they will probably prefer over their otherwise well-balanced rations. Eating human food can turn kittens into finicky eaters and they may end up holding out for the chicken or fish on your plate and not eating their proper fill of kitten food. Another absolute "no-no" is feeding the kitten from the table as this will lead to bad habits of hanging around and pestering people at mealtimes. Start out the way you intend to continue. Another strong recommendation: no raw food. While some people will tell you that raw food is natural, so is disease. Over 50% of some supermarket meats were found infected with Salmonella or Campylobacter, so feeding raw foods is like playing Russian roulette with your kitten's gastrointestinal tract, and possibly her life (It doesn't take long for a vomiting and diarrheic kitten to become dehydrated, electrolyte deficient, and weak).
Another thing new kitten owners wonder is whether they should feed their kitten supplementary vitamins or minerals. The answer to this is that if you are feeding proper kitten food that is complete and balanced, additional vitamins and minerals are not only unnecessary and expensive but may also even be harmful under some circumstances.
So what's the bottom line? The answer is that kitten owners should feed proprietary high quality AAFCO-approved food in the manner recommended by the manufacturers. Kittens should eat regularly and their eating habits should be observed to ensure that they don't eat too much or too little, and that they don't become sick. All this may sound like common sense, but it's amazing how many people get it wrong. Fortunately for you, now that you've read this, you won't be one of them.