Cats are the most popular pet in New Zealand (44 per cent of New Zealand households have one, compared to 31 per cent for dogs) so it follows that raising a kitten is an important – but often misunderstood – art*.
Dr Annabel Robertson, Professional Consulting Veterinarian at Hill's Pet Nutrition, points out that the nutritional needs of a kitten are not widely known: "Kittens grow fast, sometimes doubling in size in a matter of weeks. They require higher protein, more energy and higher minerals in their diets compared to adult cats."
Not only that – but many people also wrongly believe they can feed cats milk. Robertson says that once kittens have been weaned, they lose the ability to digest milk and become lactose-intolerant.
"But it's also best to avoid giving cow's milk to kittens, she says, "it's not necessary and can cause diarrhoea."
Another common misconception is that kittens and cats can be fed dog food. Robertson says cats are what's known as obligate carnivores – meaning they must consume animal tissue, unlike dogs.
"Cats have a higher protein requirement and higher dietary requirements for nutrients that aren't available from plant sources, such as taurine which is essential for eye development and heart function."
So kittens and cats not only need dedicated food, a kitten's energy requirements can be up to three times that of an adult cat – and their small stomach size can make it difficult to consume enough calories to meet their energy needs.
That's where Hill's Science Diet kitten comes in, says Robertson. It is highly digestible so only small amounts need to be fed, meaning there is often less mess to clean up.
"In kittens younger than six months, I recommend feeding 3-4 times a day. Once over six months, two meals a day is fine and make sure you feed your kitten at the same time every day. Kittens should gradually gain weight (about 100g per week until five months of age) and, if you have any concerns contact your veterinarian for advice."
Refer to the feeding guide on the pack to ensure you do not over- or under-feed your kitten, she says, and monitor your kitten's body condition to ensure they are receiving the correct amount of food: "You should be able to feel, but not see, the ribs and the cat should have an obvious waistline when viewed from above.
"When kittens are very small, they should be fed predominantly wet food as they will struggle to eat the kibble. Once they are over a few months of age, I recommend feeding a combination of wet and dry foods and transition to adult food once the kitten is fully grown at 12 months of age."
She says many ask about giving their kitten treats: "They should make up less than 10 per cent of the daily caloric intake – but avoid feeding table scraps and human food to your kitten. In addition to weight issues, this can create a finicky eater and can encourage begging."
Supplements are not required and could cause an excess of nutrients which could be harmful: "Just feed a complete and balanced kitten food and always make sure fresh water is available."
Food can be left out all the time when kittens are very young as their energy demands are so high, she says, and it also reduces risk of under-feeding and helps reduce gastric distension.
"However I prefer to measure or weigh out the food amount rather than just filling up the bowl. Obesity can occur, even in kittens, and is much easier to prevent it than address it once it has occurred."
Another tip: neutering reduces a kitten's energy requirements, so speak to your vet after neutering to ensure you are feeding the correct amount.
Asked what makes Hill's Science Diet a great choice for kittens, Roberston says: "it's complete and balanced, so it contains all nutrients a growing kitten requires in the right amounts."
That includes a clinically proven combination of antioxidants to support a healthy immune system, and high levels of DHA from fish oil for healthy brain and eye development. She says it also tastes delicious to kittens and cats and comes in a variety of feeding options.
*Based on 2015 research from Roy Morgan.
For more information on Hill's Science Diet kitten visit: https://www.hillspet.co.nz/cat-food/sd-feline-kitten-dry