If you've just adopted yourself a couple of kittens, or had your cat deliver and give birth to a few of these bundles of joys, one of the first questions that'll come to mind after the storm has settled is "what's the absolute best food for kittens I can give them to eat?".
After all, properly taking care of your cat when they're still little kittens is basically the first stepping stone into making sure that they'll grow up to live a healthy, happy and lengthy life.
This article is going to be a rundown on every last bit of detail you need to know about when it comes to your kitten's diet, but before we get into all of that, let's have a quick look at our 6 favorite kitten food brands and formulas that we rate highest.
Our List Of The Top 6 Best Kitten Food Brands – (Updated List For 2023)
Top Pick: Wellness Complete Canned Grain Free Cat Food
Pick #2: Blue Buffalo Wilderness High Protein Dry Kitten Food
Pick #3: Royal Canin Feline Health Nutrition Kitten Dry Food
Pick #4: IAMS Pate Wet Cat Food
Pick #5: Hill’s Science Diet Indoor Dry Cat Food
Pick #6: Purina Fancy Feast Kitten Gourmet Wet Cat Food
*Note: The links in the table above, as well as several links in the remainder of the article below, will take you to over to Chewy.com where you can find out more information about the products, such as current prices and customer reviews.
Why Should Kittens Eat Kitten Specific Food?
So, time to answer the golden question: Why do kittens need to be eating kitten food? Aren't regular cat food formulas enough to meet their needs just like they are for adult cats?
Unfortunately, the answer to that is a simple no.
As cat owners, we'd all love to save a few bucks here and there and not have to buy different formulas from different brands for our felines, but it's a must because the nutritional needs of young and growing kittens are completely different than those of adult cats, which means that they must consume cat food that's been specifically manufactured to meet their needs in order to properly grow and thrive in life.
Rapid Growth: Because of the fact that young and growing kittens experience rapid physical growth up until they become adult cats, they need to meet the necessary nutritional requirements to keep up with this fast growth.
As a matter of fact, kittens often double (and sometimes even triple) their size during the first weeks of their life, so you can see how fast that growth is and how critical this phase of their life is.
If a kitten doesn't get the necessary nutritional requirements from proper kitten food specifically manufactured to meet their needs, they become at a huge risk to experience improper growth and all sorts of physical problems accompanied with it.
High Energy Levels: Young and growing kittens usually have much higher energy levels to burn through than older cats, which requires more energy dense foods to supply them with enough calories they need for the day to maintain those high energy levels.
For some young and growing cats, their caloric needs for the day may be up to double the caloric needs for older cats with less growing to do and less energy levels to burn through.
Just like kittens grow double or triple their size during this phase of their life, they also tend to have double or triple the amount of energy an adult cat usually has - and that's a lot!
Hyperthyroidism: Hyperthyroidism, the excessive activity of the thyroid gland and the excessive production of the thyroid hormone as a result, is a condition that young and growing kittens are at a higher risk of suffering from than older cats.
This condition is very often due to a lack of sufficient vitamins and minerals in a kitten's diet.
So, research says that one of the best ways you can decrease the risk of your kitten developing Hyperthyroidism during its lifetime (at least during the early stages of its life where it harms most) is by feeding them a diet that's able to meet all their nutritional needs, something that's only ever achievable by feeding them kitten food manufactured to meet their specific needs and not cats of other age brackets.
What Criteria Determines The Best Kitten Food?
So, knowing that you want to do your absolute best to make sure that your tiny kitten grows up to be the healthiest, happiest adult cat it can ever be, you first need to know what criteria needs to be found in any kitten food in order for it to be as nutritious and as beneficial as possible for your little one.
The following section will cover the most important criteria that needs to be found in a cat food formula in order for it to be considered among the best kitten food options out there on the market.
Specifically Manufactured For Kittens: The first and probably most important criterion is that the formula you choose clearly says somewhere on its label that is has been manufactured to meet the nutritional requirements of kittens.
This means that cat food formulas labeled as "suitable for all life stages", for example, are not the best you can offer a young and growing kitten.
Proper Approval: If you can feed your kitten a bag of food that clearly has a label on it that says AAFCO approved (Association of American Feed Control Officials approved), this is a huge sign of a high quality kitten food.
High Protein Count: Seeing that they're passing through what possibly is the most important and critical phase in their lifetime in terms of physical growth and proper muscle development, a kitten's protein needs are significantly higher than those of adult cats.
The bare minimum percentage of protein that veterinarians often recommend kittens get from their food and diet is 30% protein, while adult cats can get by just fine with eating cat food that has around 25% protein.
Anything below 30% protein for kittens, however, is often considered to be insufficient and will many times lead to slow and improper growth.
Protein Sources: The source of protein in your kitten's food is just as important as the amount of protein included in the formula.
Even if your kitten's food has adequate amounts of protein, if these protein levels come from low quality meat sources then that beats the entire purpose and brings us back to square zero.
Look at the ingredients list on whatever kitten food formula you're thinking about picking up and see whether the first few spots are high quality animal meats.
If that's the case, then that's your green light to go ahead as far as this point is concerned.
If, however, the first few spots on the ingredients list are plant based protein sources, you're best off looking for a different formula because this won't be sufficient for your kitten's nutritional needs.
Meat based protein sources are especially important for kittens due to their high needs for amino acids during this phase in their life, something they're only able to get in sufficient quantities from animal meats in their food.
Proper Fat Levels: When it comes to how much fat should be included in your kitten's food in comparison to how much fat should be included in an adult cat's food, there's not much of a difference between the two.
Consumption of adequate dietary fat levels is extra important in kittens, though, as this greatly helps supply them with the energy they need on a daily basis.
Experts recommend that both young, growing kittens and adult cats be fed a diet that contains around 10% of dietary fat from their food.
Wet Kitten Food VS Dry Kitten Food: The debate about whether wet kitten food or dry kitten food is better for young and growing kittens seems to be a never ending one, but there are facts out there that are backed up by sufficient research that favors one over the other.
In a nutshell, wet kitten food (canned) is much more important and beneficial to them at this specific phase of their life than dry kitten food.
Now, this is not to say that the entirety of your kitten's diet should consist of canned kitten food, but a large part of it should be concentrated on this type.
The first reason to why wet food is better than dry food for your kitten is due to the fact that their teeth simply haven't developed enough to be able to properly chew on dry kibble.
Wet kitten food will prove to be much softer for them to chew on than dry kibble.
Another reason is due to the moisture found in wet kitten food that goes a long way in ensuring your kitten remains properly hydrated throughout the day, a benefit you don't really get with dry kitten food because it contains minimal levels of water.
Also, canned kitten food tends to contain significantly higher protein levels than dry kitten food (generally speaking), and we've already covered the exceptional importance of adequate protein levels in a kitten's diet above.
Experts recommend that you either feed your kitten a diet that consists of 50% wet kitten food and 50% dry kitten food, or you feed them a diet that consists of 100% wet kitten food.
It's up to you to see for yourself which one of the two options your kitten responds to best.
When Should Kittens Start Eating Kitten Food?
Kittens should not be fed kitten food right off the bat from day one after their birth, obviously.
The first 4 weeks of a kitten's life are going to be centered around drinking milk from their mother, after which they're considered at an age where it's safe to gradually start feeding them kitten food.
"Gradually" is the key word here, as a fast transition when your kitten reaches the age of 4 weeks will do them much more harm than good.
This gradual transition from a mother's milk towards feeding them kitten food will slowly continue from the age of 4 weeks till the age of 8 weeks, at which point a kitten will completely stop drinking from its mother's milk and will fully rely on consuming kitten food for all its nutritional needs and proper growth.
How Can I Tell If My Kitten Is Properly Growing On Its Food?
Besides feeding your little on the absolute best kitten food that money can buy, you should actively monitor how well they're responding to their food (and overall diet), whether or not their physical growth is going according to schedule, and how their general health is looking like being fed whatever kitten food you're offering them.
The following are some of the most important benchmarks you should evaluate with your kitten before you seek a dietary change, as it just might not be needed.
Gradual Increase In Weight: One of the clearest signs that your kitten is responding well to the kitten food you're giving it to eat and overall diet you have it following is steady, gradual and healthy increase in weight.
A kitten that's not responding well to the kitten food and/or overall diet its placed on, however, will either be gaining weight at an alarming rate where it becomes overweight/obese in no time, or will be gaining weight at a very slow rate where it will be considered behind schedule.
High Energy: Another sign that your kitten is doing pretty well on the diet you've set up for it is how well it's able to maintain its energy levels (which are usually pretty high).
A healthy kitten is one that maintains high energy levels throughout the day, wanting to play around, stay on the move and just be the bundle of life and joy it really is.
Of course, this doesn't mean that these energy levels will be maintained throughout the entire day, kittens get tired too and may want to relax here and there as well, which is only normal.
The point we're trying to get across, though, is that if your kitten appears to be lethargic all day long, is barely getting any physical activity done and just wants to lay down doing nothing, then something's wrong and one of the first things you have to check on is their diet/food.
Coat Condition: You'll also be able to tell whether your kitten is meeting their nutritional requirements from the food they're eating by monitoring their coat condition.
Do you notice frequent hair loss and/or bald spots on your kitten's coat? Do you notice that your kitten's coat is slowly losing its "glow" and "gloss"?
If you answered yes to either of the two previous questions, then there's a pretty high chance that your kitten is failing to meet their nutritional requirements from the food they're eating and diet they're put on.
Besides the possibility of something wrong with your kitten's diet if you notice their coat's condition deteriorating, it would be a wise idea if you'd consult with your veterinarian about it in order to see if there are any other health problems that your kitten is suffering from besides the need for change in food or diet.
Gastrointestinal Distress: Do you notice that your kitten is experiencing frequent bouts of diarrhea/constipation and/or vomiting?
Such gastrointestinal distress is oftentimes a sign that there's something wrong with your kitten's diet that needs to be addressed, one of which may be changing the kitten food brand or formula you're giving them to eat.
Frequent Illness: A kitten that's frequently feeling "under the weather" and falling ill is also oftentimes a sign that something's not right, and it's oftentimes a sign that they're malnourished and have a weak immune system because they're being fed poor quality kitten food that's supplying them with very minimal vitamins, minerals and the like.
Gum Color: How's your kitten's gum color looking like? Is it looking healthy like any normal gum color or is it looking pale? A pale gum color in kittens is another sign that they're not the healthiest they can be, and it's often a diet-related issue.
Till When Should Kittens Keep Eating Kitten Food?
Now that we've covered when exactly kittens should start being fed kitten food, the next most logical question to be asked is when should kittens stop being fed kitten food and put on adult cat food instead?
According to various different experts on the topic, it appears to be best practice to gradually move your kitten from eating kitten food to eating adult cat food as soon as they become 1 year of age.
General Tips On Feeding Kittens
Getting the best kitten food for your tiny best friend is only half the battle. The other half of the battle is sticking to overall best practices when it comes to feeding your kitten and how you approach this on a more general level.
Frequent Meals: One of the most important feeding tips you can implement when it comes to your kitten is feeding them frequent, smaller meals instead of just one or two large meals for the day.
A good rule of thumb to follow would be splitting up your kitten's food for the entire day into 4 meals that are equally spaced out in terms of time, size and calories consumed.
Not only is this much more beneficial for your growing kitten than consuming only one or two giant meals for the day at once, it also makes their digestive system's job a tremendously easier one.
Experts do suggest that once your kitten exceeds 1 year of age, they don't need to be eating as frequent meals as they need to before the age of 1.
However, sticking to the same frequent feeding schedule will still benefit your cat no matter what age they are, so if you can stick to it, then definitely do.
It's just extra important that you make sure to feed young and growing kittens less than 1 year of age small meals because their small stomachs can't handle large volumes at once, and they're at a very high risk of experiencing deadly bloat if they manage to eat more volume than they can handle at one sitting.
Proper Hydration: Keeping your kitten properly hydrated at all times throughout the day is just as important as providing them with the proper food to meet their nutritional requirements, so make sure you've got that all covered by giving them free access to a cat bowl that's always refilled with water before it becomes empty, you allow them access to something like a kitten water fountain, or whatever method you prefer to follow.
As long as you're able to ensure your kitten is properly hydrated throughout the day, whichever method will work just fine.
Whatever you do, though, always make sure that the water you're giving your kitten to drink is fresh as can be.
Minimal Treats: When your kitten is still of very young age and given the delicacy of this phase they're passing through, it's best if you just focus on high quality kitten food and forget about the tasty treats for a while.
If you find that you absolutely must give your kitten a few treats every now and then, however, make sure that any treats you give them make up less than 5% of their overall diet.
Anything above 5% and you start risking a whole host of problems that you're better off without having to worry about.
Proper Exposure: A tip you're going to want to implement and take advantage of when your kitten is still at a very young age is exposing them to a wide variety of different kitten food formulas and recipes.
Have them try out some wet kitten food for some time, then some dry kitten food, then change the recipes/flavors in between, and so on. By doing this, you'll end up drastically decreasing the chances of your kitten growing up to become a picky eating cat that gives you a terribly hard time when it comes to eating their food.
By exposing your young and growing kitten to all of these different textures, recipes and flavors from a very young age, you're instilling good habits in them and are helping their taste buds adjust to accept a wide variety of different options - and trust me when I say this, this will come in very handy in the future.
To Free Feed Or Not To Free Feed: Because this issue is a bit controversial and there are two sides to it, we'll lay out the facts and leave it up to you to decide what you're comfortable doing.
Some experts recommend following a free-feed diet where you allow your kitten to eat whatever they want, whenever they want by granting them access to kitten food 24/7.
The logic behind this is, according to them, that kittens will only ever want to eat whenever they're hungry and their body needs the nutrition, and that this immensely helps kittens that may be experiencing slow growth problems and need to put on a few pounds to be as healthy as possible.
Experts that advise free feeding your kitten also claim that by doing so, you're minimizing the chance of them experiencing digestive problems because you're not having them eat too fast or too much in one sitting.
On the other hand, experts that advise against free feeding your kitten do so because of the risk of them becoming overweight/obese really fast and relatively easily, as kittens may sometimes be hungry and eat if they're being free-fed, but they've already consumed all their calories worth for the day a very long time ago.
That's the gist of it and you're free to do your own further research on the topic to decide which of the two methods you're more comfortable following.
However, and this is just what I think about this entire debate, if you're able to follow the recommendations when it comes to your kitten's diet to the T, be that your veterinarian's recommendations or those of the manufacturing company found on the bag, that would be a much better option than free feeding because you're making sure your cat gets all the calories and nutrition it needs to properly grow, and you're practically eliminating any risk of them getting overweight/obese.