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Can kittens eat cat food?

Brown kitten eating wet food

It's important to give a healthy and balanced diet to your kitten.

© Shutterstock

A balanced and nutritious diet is what every kitten needs to grow up strong and healthy. But is adult cat food a good choice for your kitten? Read on to find out.

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS

Updated on the 23/02/2021, 10:23

The right nutrition gives your kitten the best start in life, providing a good foundation for growth and health into adulthood. Kittens need appropriate levels of protein, fat, vitamins and minerals to grow. But what’s the difference between cat food and kitten food, how are they different?

Cat food and kitten food are not the same. Diets for adults and kittens are developed with different life stages in mind, and contain vastly different levels of nutrients - specially tailored to help your pet at that point in their life. The nutritional needs of a tiny kitten are much different to that of an adult cat. Fortunately for owners, it’s easy to pick out a food that will suit your pet best!

A big difference between adult and kitten food is the calorie content. Kittens need many more calories to provide their growing bodies with energy, and most of these calories should come from good quality protein sources. This protein provides the building blocks for growth of almost every cell in the body. Adult cat food contains lower levels of calories and protein, and won’t provide your kitten with the energy they need to grow into their adult body.

How different is cat and kitten food?

Kitten food differs from adult cat food mainly in the amount of protein and fatty acids it contains. The amount of water, taurine and additional minerals is carefully formulated for the life stage of your kitten, and is provided in the correct amounts for your pet in both adult and kitten foods.

Fats are an essential part of the diet, providing fatty acids for energy and growth. During periods of rapid growth, they’re needed to help provide the boundless energy you no doubt see with your new kitten. Vitamins and minerals such as calcium, phosphorous and potassium are crucial to the development of strong bones and teeth. Levels of these often differ between adult and kitten diets due to differing requirements for growth.

An example comparison of a dry adult and kitten diet is as follows:

  • Protein: adult 30%, kitten 34%
  • Fat: adult 18%, kitten 20%
  • Fibre: adult 5%, kitten 3%

These amounts may not look vastly different, but they are carefully designed to provide your pet with all the nutrients he or she needs.

What else do young kittens need?

Mother’s milk is an important source of nutrition during the early days and weeks of your kitten’s life, but as your kitten grows it’s essential that they develop a healthy appetite for solid foods and begin to wean. Most kittens will steadily wean themselves (with some help from mum) onto a kitten food, and eventually won’t need their mother’s milk anymore.

The litter becomes less enamoured with mum’s teats and begins to show interest in their mother’s food, stealing mouthfuls and enjoying meat rather than milk. Weaning tends to happen at around four weeks of age, so good quality kitten food should begin to be available around this age.

What happens if my kitten eats cat food by accident?

A little bit of cat food won’t do your kitten any harm, don’t panic. Prolonged feeding of adult food won’t help them grow into the best version of themselves, but the occasional nibble of adult food won’t cause a problem. Make sure you’ve got a good supply of kitten food in the cupboard so you won’t be caught short if stocks are running low, and aim to keep their brand and type the same.

What would happen if I fed my kitten cat food all the time?

Most foods have labels showing which ages the food is suitable for. Lots of kitten foods are appropriate to feed until 6-12 months of age, when your cat is fully grown. Always check the box of packet of food and check manufacturers recommendations. These diets are formulated to help your cat grow and be as healthy as can be. Kittens need higher calories and levels of protein, which adult diets may not provide. If your kitten isn’t getting the right nutrition they may be underweight, malnourished and show stunted growth or signs of illness.

Signs of a poor diet may include:

  • Scavenging for food
  • Weight loss or being underweight
  • Diarrhoea
  • Poor coat and skin quality
  • Poor dental health
  • Muscular weakness or lethargy

Untreated malnutrition

If your kitten isn’t receiving adequate nutrition over a long period of time, you may notice your kitten looking in poor condition or becoming unwell. Your kitten may be skinny, with a poor coat and may not be as playful as you would expect. Malnutrition can result in serious health problems and has the potential to even be fatal. If you’re concerned your cat is looking too skinny, try and body condition score them. Lots of examples are available, or your vet will be able to assist you in monitoring their weight and growth.

If malnutrition is left untreated for a long time, multiple organ failure may occur. Nutrition is as important to kittens as it is to children. It’s crucial to give your kitten a healthy and balanced diet, and commercial food that is specifically designed to be enjoyed by a kitten is always the best option. Feeding your kitten some cat food occasionally will not stunt his development but to make a regular thing of it will. Poor nutrition and its effects can be overcome but the impacts on immunity and general health may be long-lasting.