Meow. Hear that? Your kitten is hungry, but his mother isn't around: He needs milk replacement. (Meow.) There's leftover puppy milk replacement in cupboard -- maybe that'll work? Nope. Cat nutritional requirements are quite different than dogs. (Meow.) Puppy products help in a pinch but shouldn't become staples.
Kittens are Not Puppies
Mother's milk is a kitten's best feeding option but isn't always available. Two scenarios include orphaned or separated kittens and sick mothers, whose milk can harm kittens. Designed to mimic the vitamin, mineral, fat, protein and carbohydrate content of mother's milk, milk replacement products can help. They're species-specific, though, and should only be used as labeled. Unlike dogs, cats are obligate carnivores, and their nutritional needs reflect this dietary constraint. It's probably safe for cats to lap up puppy milk replacement in small amounts, but it won't contain the proper nutritional balance necessary for proper development. Avoid it altogether.
Kittens typically suckle at their mother's teats for the first seven to nine weeks of their lives. If mother's milk isn't available, this is same window during which you should feed kittens milk replacement. Kittens typically need 20 to 25 calories for every 100 grams of body weight. Use calorie and serving size information on milk replacement packaging to figure out appropriate feeding amounts. Newborn kittens typically feed every couple of hours. Start feeding your cat supplemental kitten food four weeks after birth. This is a transitional period when mother's milk is no longer sufficient in and of itself, according to the National Academies' National Research Council. It's also about the time the weaning process begins. Treat milk replacement-fed cats similarly.
Milk from lactating cats is significantly different than other animals. Cat milk has 10.8 percent fat, 10.6 percent protein and 3.7 percent sugar, according to University of Illinois figures. Dogs, pigs, cows and humans each have lower total percentages in each category, except for sugar, where cats are the lowest. Dog's milk is the closest to cat's milk, but has much less protein, at 7.5 percent. It also has about twice the concentration of iron as cat's milk. Milk replacements likely reflect these compositions. Even the proper species-specific milk replacement isn't a perfect substitute for mother's milk. Problems associated with such products include small, focal cataracts from deficiencies in vitamins or amino acids that resolve after weaning and slower growth rate because of lack of enzymes necessary for fat digestion.
Read milk replacement labels thoroughly before feeding your kitten. Some products are intended as total replacements for mother's milk, but others are supposed to be supplemental. Check for additives like colostrum, a protein-rich mammary gland secretion crucial to immune system development, and taurine, an amino acid crucial to heart and eye development. Milk replacement comes in liquid and powder forms. Once opened or reconstituted, they need to refrigerated, but should be warmed before feeding. Only feed kittens milk replacement intended for cats. Ask your veterinarian about proper feeding technique. Cow's milk is sometimes used in kitten milk replacements (and puppy products). Although they're designed to meet kitten's nutritional needs, avoid these products.
- WebMD: Newborn Kitten Care
- National Research Council of the National Academies: Your Cat's Nutritional Needs -- A Science-Based Guide for Pet Owners
- ShopWiki.com: Pet Milk Replacements
- Cornell University Oneida County Cooperative Extension: Evaluation of Milk Replacers
- University of Illinois Animal Science Classes: Comparative Lactation -- Cats and Dogs
- University of Minnesota: Orphan Kitten Care
- WebMD: Cats and Dairy -- Get the Facts
- UC Davis Veterinary Medicine Companion Animal Behavior Program: Basic Care
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Nutrition Tips for Kittens
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Weaning
- WebMD: Weaning a Kitten from Mother's Milk to Solid Food
- Cornell University Cornell Feline Health Center: Feeding Your Cat
- Martin Poole/Photodisc/Getty Images