If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it is that kittens are insanely cute. Those of us lucky enough to have their homes overrun by the little critters will be very aware of the responsibility to ensure that they get the best care. A crucial part of this is successfully weaning them from milk onto solid food. The Cats Protection League survey in 2020 found that 16% of all neutered female cats have one litter before they are spayed. Given there are 5.3 million owned female cats in the UK, that equates to a lot of kittens that need to be weaned onto solids. So, whether breeding was intended, or the kittens were an accident, knowing when to start weaning them onto solid food is essential for giving a kitten the best start in life.
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What is the meaning of “weaning”?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines weaning as to “accustom (an infant or other young mammal) to food other than its mother’s milk”. There is a second definition, which when talking about baby animals, is often conflated with the first: “accustom (someone) to managing without something which they have become dependent on”. In this context, removing the kitten permanently from the mother. This confusion is unfortunate as it suggests that kittens (and other baby animals) should be removed from their mothers when they start eating solid food. In fact, a kitten should remain with the mother at least a month after they have started eating solid food to ensure adequate socialization.
“Early weaning”, as in early separation from the mother, can result in behavioural problems. It can be a challenge in hand-reared kittens. However, here we discuss weaning in strictly the sense of introducing a kitten to solid food.
Kittens are ready to try solid foods at 4 weeks old.
Weaning a kitten from a 100% milk diet to solid food is a delicate business. Some kittens might start showing interest in their mother’s food from 3 weeks of age. Most will be ready to be introduced to kitten gruel by 4 weeks of age. At this stage, you should be actively encouraging kittens to eat solid food. Kitten gruel is a mash of high-quality kitten food mixed with kitten replacement milk formula. It is designed to be easy for the kitten to lap up.
As kittens get used to the gruel, the amount of milk added can be reduced gradually. It helps to serve the gruel in a flat dish. Such as a saucer or even an upside-down Tupperware lid if there is one to spare. This allows easy access to the food. Expect feeding to be very messy for the first few days. But most kittens should complete the transition to kitten food by 6 weeks of age.
What are the pitfalls to watch out for?
Just like human babies, kittens develop at different rates. So whilst some may be chowing down their gruel in no time, they may have siblings who are struggling to get the hang of things. It may simply be that they need more time to get used to solids. Still, it is a good idea to weigh all kittens daily to pick up any problems early. Even if they are still nursing from their mother. A healthy kitten should gain at least 10 grams a day. If, after introducing solids, the kitten’s weight gain curve flattens or they become dull and lethargic, that is the cue to take the little one for a checkup with the vet to see if an underlying cause can be identified.
Is the timing of weaning different for hand-rears?
Unfortunately, no. After several weeks of relentless night feeds, the temptation to get the little darlings onto solids earlier is understandable. Nevertheless, the magic age for introduction to solids for hand-reared kittens is still 4 weeks and certainly not before 3 weeks of age.