For kittens, the weaning process is a natural one, and mothers know best. Here's how to do your part.
Weaning is a big step in a kitten's young life. It happens when kittens move from mother's milk to solid food. Just as important, it's a time when a kitten moves from depending on her mother's care to becoming a more socially independent cat. And if you live with a cat, you know just how seriously they take that independence!
The process of weaning usually starts when kittens are about three to four weeks old, and takes two to three weeks to complete. If you are bottle-feeding an orphaned kitten, or one whose mother isn't able to feed her, weaning can begin as early as three weeks.
Mother Knows Best...
The weaning process is actually very ordinary and natural, especially when handled by the mother cat. Like any good mother, she instinctually knows what to do and when, without ever consulting a single kitten development book.
One of her best indicators that it's time to wean comes from her kittens themselves. At just a few weeks of age, they begin trying to eat her food, and she has to push them away. That's when the transition to independence known as weaning begins.
During weaning, kittens should remain with their mothers as much as possible. In fact, taking a kitten away from her mother too suddenly can negatively affect her health and socialization skills. After all, a mother cat is not only her kittens' first source of food — she is also the kittens' first teacher, guiding them on everything from playing to mastering the use of the litter box, arguably a most important thing to master.
...But Mother Needs Her Rest
To help weaning kittens become less dependent on mom (and her milk), place them in an area separate from mom for a few hours at a time. Young kittens depend on their mother for body heat, so when placing kittens in an area separate from mom, make sure the temperature is nice and warm for them, and that this area has a litter box and water bowls. This will allow the kittens to get used to spending time without their mother close by — and hopefully give mom time to catch up on some sleep.
Kittens generally nibble solid foods at three to four weeks of age, which is a great time to start setting out moistened kitten food for them. Just add one part warm — not hot — water to three parts dry or canned kitten food, changing frequently to ensure freshness. It should look like oatmeal, and will likely never be featured on the cover of a cooking magazine, but once your kitten develops a taste for it, you'll become her favorite chef.
When giving kittens food in a bowl for the first time, use a bowl with a low edge so kittens can have easy access without the risk of tipping over into the bowl head first. You can avoid the risk of affixation by using small amounts of food.
If your kitten plays with her food at first, batting it with her paws and even stepping in the bowl, remember that she has to get used to the idea that this really is food, and not just a fabulously messy toy. So be patient. And have a moist cloth ready to clean up. Like human babies, weaning kittens need to be wiped off occasionally, so be sure to keep them warm while they dry off.
Also, at some point, you might be tempted to reach for the milk jug in your fridge. The problem is, your kitten's digestive system might not be able to handle cow's milk, and neither of you will be happy with the results.
The Switch to Solid
As your kitten gets used to eating more solid food, gradually decrease the amount of water and increase the amount of food each day. After a week or two of softened food, she should be past the oatmeal-like food stage, and happily munching on only lightly moistened food. At this point, you can leave out small amounts of dry kitten food and fresh water — a sort of all-day snack buffet.
By the time your kitten is five to seven weeks old, she should be getting all of her nutrition from solid food. The weaning process is over — congratulations! — and your kitten is ready to move on to other adventures in development, with her nutritional foundation firmly in place.
Just be sure to keep feeding her kitten food during those first 12 months, since kittens continue to develop throughout their first year. And if you have questions about your kitten's transition to solid food or concerns about her progress, don't hesitate to consult your veterinarian.
Want to learn more about our fascinating feline friends and how to care for them? Check out Cat Chow’s Catipedia website!
Kaye T. petMD. "Weaning Kittens: How and When"
Vigil L. Nestlé Purina PetCare Senior Nutritionist (Cat Portfolio). Interviewed Dec 2014.