As with most species, mother knows best, and cats are no different. Mother cats will start the weaning process by nudging baby kittens away at about four weeks of age, so feel free to step in and offer the kittens tasty kibble at about the same time.
If the kittens are still with their mother, mom will gradually say "no!" to frequent nursing sessions and tell them to find other food sources. It's for their own good - left to their own and nature’s devices, kittens no longer need mom’s nutrition at 8 to 10 weeks. House kittens, though, need you to help transition them from mom’s dinner table to yours. If you don’t know their ages, their eyes should be open and they should be steady on their feet before trying solid food.
Your four-week-old kittens can eat dry food but it may be tough at first; make the transition easier by mixing it with kitten milk replacer. Buy this milk replacer at pet and farm supply stores and some grocery stores. Don’t use the cow’s milk you drink or you’ll likely end up with sick kittens on your hands. Gradually reduce the amount of milk. You can also give kittens canned food, or mix dry and canned. Food made especially for kittens is higher in protein and calcium. Make sure they can get to mom’s or their own water dish, too.
Other Weaning Considerations
Don’t remove baby kittens from mom permanently before they are eight weeks old. They still have a lot to learn from her - important things, like how to use the litter box and how to clean themselves after dinner. Mom also knows the correct way to wean so interfere as little as possible. This doesn't mean you can't separate them for a few hours; in fact, that will help them get used to the permanent separation. Putting them in a separate room to eat their solid food is a good way to help them transition away from mom.
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If you’ve been hand-nursing orphaned kittens with kitten milk replacer, your weaning techniques are the same – except you will need to feed them more frequently, at least every few hours. If you want to keep setting kitten milk out for them, teach them how to lap it up from a dish. Put some on your finger or bottle tip and as they are licking it, gently guide their mouths to the bowl. Don’t shove their face in the bowl thinking that will teach them to drink; it may cause them to inhale the milk and cause lung problems.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
- Janet Roark, DVM, Austin, Texas
- ASPCA: Weaning
- Partnership for Animal Welfare: How to Care for Your Kitten
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.