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Kittens double their birth weight in the first nine days. As they continue to grow, their weight gradually increases by a total of over 30 times their birth weight in the first year. In terms of physical growth and development, this is the most important year of a cat’s life, although many cats reach full maturity only at 2-4 years of age.
Kittens are full of energy. As they begin walking around and acquiring coordination, they become very busy little creatures. Any time that is not dedicated to feeding or sleeping will be spent playing. They practice climbing, jumping, running, and mock fighting with each other and are a joy to watch. This continuous action requires vast amounts of energy supplied in the form of a high-calorie intake.
The First Weeks
Kittens feed on their mother’s milk for the first weeks of their lives. During this time, they nurse eagerly at every waking hour. The milk provides them with all the nutrients their bodies require. It is rich in protein and relatively low in carbohydrates and fats, compared to cow’s milk.
Unless there is a special medical problem, it is best to allow the kittens to feed on their mother’s milk exclusively for the first 4-6 weeks. This is the best food available for them — always fresh and served at the right temperature.
In the first two days after the birth, the mother cat produces a special condensed kind of milk called colostrum. The colostrum contains passive antibodies, which provide the kittens with temporary immunity to certain diseases. Even if you plan to hand-rear the kittens for some reason, it is very important to let kittens nurse naturally for the first two days if at all possible.
Weaning should be a gradual process, allowing the kitten to slowly adjust to a new type of food. Given enough food and not too large a litter, a lactating cat may keep nursing her kittens until the birth of her next litter. Usually, however, it is best for both mother and kittens if you start introducing food to the kittens when they are about four weeks old.
As the kittens’ demand for the mother’s milk declines, the mother will produce less milk and gradually dry up. Reducing the amount of food the mother consumes, helps to speed up the process.
You should start weaning by giving the kittens a mixture of cat food (kitten or growth formula), mixed with water or cat milk replacement. According to the Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook, if you use dry kibbles, begin by mixing one part cat food and three parts of water. For soft canned food, begin by mixing one part cat food and two parts of water. Gradually decrease the amount of water in the mixture. By the time the kittens are ten weeks old, they should be feeding solely on kitten food.
Kitten or growth formulas are rich in protein as well as calories and provide the kittens with a balanced diet suited for their special needs. Investing in quality kitten food will give the kittens a healthy start in life and will help protect them from disease.
There is no need to supplement such food with vitamins or any other additive. Only in cases of special medical conditions, and under veterinary instructions, should you supplement any quality cat food. Adding unnecessary vitamins and minerals to an already balanced diet can actually harm the kitten.
Kittens usually eat several small meals a day. Their stomach is too small to contain all the food, they need to be divided into just two portions. It is best to free-feed kittens and let them nibble throughout the day. However, if you feed kittens with canned cat food, do not leave it sitting out for long, as it might get spoiled. Instead, divide the daily amount into several portions and feed at equal intervals throughout the day.
In between meals, keep the food refrigerated and heat to room temperature before serving. Avoid microwaving, as this can create pockets of scalding heat in the food. Instead, mix in some hot water and stir well.
During their first months, kittens develop food preferences that will stay with them for life. To avoid finicky eating habits later, you should feed various flavors of foods during this time. Remember that, if you switch between food types, you must always do so gradually by mixing the original food with increasing quantities of the new food.
Keep feeding the kittens with kitten or growth cat food until they are one year old. At that stage, gradually change their diet into regular maintenance cat food. Although many cats keep on growing after they are a year old, the accelerated growth of kittenhood is usually complete and the cats can adjust to adult cat food and regular eating habits.
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