In its most basic sense, weaning is a mammal's progression from solely drinking their mother's milk to eating solid food. Cats are particularly adept at weaning their young, so usually, humans don't have to intervene very much, aside from providing the food.
Unfortunately, sometimes mother kitties abandon their young or fall ill and are unable to nurse. For these reasons and many more, you may find yourself bottle-feeding a young kitten and having to wean them yourself. While bottle-feeding is a rewarding experience, there's a time in a young kitten's life where they need to start eating real food. Luckily, we're here to guide you through the weaning process. We'll teach you when to start weaning, what foods to buy, and how to wean a kitty successfully.
Kittens under 5 weeks old should be exclusively fed formula or milk. Their little bodies need the extra nutrients in milk to help them develop properly. At a little over a month old, a kittens' back teeth should start erupting, signaling they're ready to start trying real food.
Keep in mind tooth development isn't a hard and fast rule for weaning. Underweight or sickly kittens may need some extra time on the bottle or with mom before they're ready to eat solids.
Orphaned kittens may need to be weaned sooner than kittens left with their mother since this can encourage independence and weight gain. You may begin the weaning process as soon as your kitten shows these signs of readiness:
- They can walk well with their tail up
- They've developed baby teeth
- They explore their environment
Weaning atypically takes around 4 weeks, but it can be 6 weeks or longer before cats are eating completely solid food. The weaning timeline depends on many factors, like if the mother is around and how the solid food is prepared. Most kittens are completely weaned by 8 to 10 weeks old.
Weaning kittens should start on a mixture of wet food with formula mixed in, and then you can move forward with wet food alone. When your kitten eats wet food with no problem, you can transition them to kitten kibble softened with water. You should only use wet and dry foods made explicitly for kittens since these are higher in calories and have a nutritional profile developed specifically for growing cats.
There are a few different ways to wean a kitten, and which way works best depends on the kitten. Some kittens take to weaning quickly and start eating out of a bowl right away. Others must be hand-fed at first to understand the process.
Orphaned kittens should still take formula in the beginning stages of the weaning process, though you may be able to switch from bottle-feeding to using a shallow dish if they will tolerate it. When bottle-feeding, remember to have the kitten lying on their stomach since feeding a kitten on their back (like a human baby) can cause them to aspirate. Only use a formula for baby kittens, never cow's milk. Kittens' bodies are not designed for drinking cows' milk. What's more, it doesn't have the adequate vitamins and minerals that growing cats need.
To encourage a kitten to drink from a dish, dip the tip of your finger into the dish and stick it near their face so they can taste it. Keep dipping your finger and allowing them to lick the formula off it until your kitten shows interest in the dish. Transitioning from the bottle to a dish may take some time, so be patient. Never dunk your kitten's head into a dish of food, formula, or water to get them to try it — this will only make them fearful of eating or drinking from a bowl.
Now that your kitten has mastered drinking from a dish, it's time to introduce solid food. Start with a slurry of wet kitten food mixed with a bit of formula. Dip your finger or a tongue depressor into the slurry and hold it up to their face and encourage them to lick it.
If your kitten isn't showing any interest on their own, try putting a dab of food on their lower lip for them to lick off. Once your kitten is eating diluted wet food for a week or so, move on to wet food without extra liquids mixed in.
After your kitten masters wet food, it's time to start softening dry kibble for them to try. Wet the dry food with formula or water to soften it up. After 2 or so weeks of softened food, your kitten should be ready for dry kibble.
Weigh your kitten regularly throughout the weaning process. If your kitten's weight goes down, you may need to supplement with additional formula or feed them solids more regularly. Make sure to introduce water alongside their meals and encourage them to drink it the same way you introduced formula in a dish.
If your kitten is still with their mother, it may help to separate them for a few hours during the day. Separating mom and baby will help bolster your kitten's independence and make them more likely to try solid food. Experts recommend making separate sleeping quarters for mom and baby and giving them separate food and water bowls and litter pans. Other than that, the weaning process is the same for nursing kittens as formula-fed kittens, aside from using a bottle.
Remember that mother cats instinctively know how to wean their offspring and usually require little to no interference from the pet parent, aside from providing softened food.
Nursing is a source of comfort to almost all mammals, kittens included. Being close with their mother makes them feel safe and secure. If you find your kitten still nurses occasionally after weaning, know that this is perfectly normal and that they're probably just looking for comfort.
Sometimes even cats nurse well into adulthood, and others may suckle on blankets and stuffed animals to find this relief. Experts have linked this behavior to external stressors, early weaning, and pure boredom.
Worried your kitten isn’t meeting the signs of weaning readiness? Live chat with a vet today!