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Kitten Food vs Cat Food: What’s the Difference & When to Switch?

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By Nicole Cosgrove

kitten food vs cat food hepper featuredYou might have seen cat food advertised as “kitten food” or “for growth” on the store shelves lately. Today, cat food manufacturers make different foods for different life stages, and kitten foods are a great way to make sure your little kitty gets all the nutrients he needs as he grows.

You might wonder what the differences are between adult cat foods and kitten foods, and whether you can switch them interchangeably. The long and short of it is that the two types of food have different nutrient ratios, and although you can feed cats kitten food or vice versa in a pinch, that can lead to problems down the line.

At a Glance:

kitten food vs cat food side by side

Kitten Food
  • Fewer varieties and options
  • Higher protein content
  • Formulated for growth
  • High calcium, phosphorus, fatty acids
  • Best for kittens and nursing mothers
Cat Food
  • More varieties and options
  • Lower protein content
  • Formulated to avoid weight gain
  • Lower amounts of certain vitamins
  • Best for adult cats

Overview of Kitten Food:

kitten eating
Image Credit: Purina, Chewy

Kitten food refers to any food, wet or dry, that is formulated for kittens. There are fresh, canned, and dry food options available for kittens, just like with adult cats, but all of these options have important differences from adult cat food. These differences come because kittens have different nutritional requirements. They expend a lot more calories every day because their bodies are growing and because they are highly active. Their fast metabolism transforms food into energy to help them grow. Nursing mother cats should also have kitten food available because they are expending a lot of extra energy-producing milk and passing that nutrition down to their kittens. Kittens and nursing mothers should generally have access to as much food as they want because malnutrition is a bigger concern than overeating.

Kitten foods have more protein and fat than adult foods. Kitten food is usually 40-55% protein. Kitten foods also have other important vitamins that kittens need in higher amounts than adult cats. Growth formula cat foods meant for kittens need more calcium, phosphorus, and certain fatty acids than standard cat foods, according to the AAFCO guidelines.

Although kitten food formulas are ideal for growing cats, they are sometimes a bit trickier to find. Kitten food formulas are less common and fewer varieties are sold. The higher nutritional content also makes them often more expensive than adult cat food. The extra nutrition is worth it, though!

Pros
  • Higher proteins and fat content than adult food
  • Contains vitamins that adult cats don’t need
Cons
  • Harder to find, fewer varieties available
  • Often more expensive

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Overview of Cat Food:

Cat eats from a bowl of dry food
Image Credit: Roman Samsonov, Shutterstock

Cat food (often marketed as “adult cat food” or “maintenance cat food”) is a little different from kitten food. Adult cats aren’t growing like kittens are, so their baseline energy needs are lower. Adult cats are at high risk for obesity from overfeeding, and the extra nutrient-rich formulation of kitten foods would just increase the likelihood of obesity. Adult cats also don’t need all of the same vitamins and are healthier when eating lower amounts of calcium and other minerals. This makes adult cat food ideal for a cat that isn’t growing anymore. It generally has a protein content of around 25-30%, making it a little less dense.

Adult cat food varies much more widely than kitten food. From all-meat “raw” diets to highly processed kibble with lots of filler, there are nearly endless options for cat food. This can make it harder to find food that keeps your cat truly healthy and happy.

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Pros
  • Lots of options available
  • Formulated to meet nutritional needs
  • Easy to find in stores
Cons
  • Not suitable for kittens
  • Quality varies widely

Can I Switch Between The Two Without Issue?

If you can’t get ahold of the right type of food, switching between kitten and cat food is generally okay as a one-time thing. Cats and kittens need similar proteins, fats, and vitamins, just in different proportions. That means that if you run out of kitten food and can’t make it to the store, he’ll survive on a meal of cat food. But long term, switching foods can be a real problem.

Kittens need more energy than adult cats, and adult cat food isn’t nutrient-dense enough for them. If you feed a kitten adult cat food, you run the risk of malnutrition. Kittens who don’t get enough calories will be smaller, frailer, and more likely to get sick. They might also run the risk of obesity later in life when they stop growing.

Adult cats don’t need all the protein in kitten foods. They’re liable to overeat and eating kitten food can cause obesity in adult cats. If you do have to feed your adult cat kitten food as a one-time thing, you might want to scale down the meal size just slightly to account for the higher caloric density.

Wet and dry pet food made of natural ingredients
Image Credit: Yuriy Golub, Shutterstock

What About All-Stages Formulas?

Some cat foods advertise themselves as “all-stages formulas,” meaning they are designed to be eaten by adult cats or kittens. These formulas are usually a mix between kitten and adult nutritional needs that don’t meet either well. All-stages formulas run the risk of being too calorie-dense to meet an adult cat’s needs, and not dense enough to feed a growing kitten.

When Should My Kitten Start Eating Cat Food?

You should switch from kitten to cat food when your cat is nearing full size. This usually occurs around one year of age, with some larger cats growing longer. Males tend to grow longer than females. In the case of nursing mothers, you should switch when kittens are fully weaned.

Like any food switch, moving your kitten up to adult food works best if it’s somewhat gradual. Even a few days of doing half kitten food and half cat food can help your cat adjust to the new flavors and textures. For most cats, you also want to adjust from free-eating, where kittens are given as much food as they want, to controlled portions. Most adult cats don’t self-regulate very well, so giving your cat two portioned-out meals a day can help avoid obesity.

Conclusion

Every cat is different, and every stage of life brings different needs. For kittens, the high-protein kitten foods will fuel growth and ensure proper nutrition that adult cat foods just don’t bring. Both kitten and cat foods can be higher quality or low quality, so it’s important to find something that is healthy and meets your cat’s nutritional needs at any age.


Featured Image Credit: MaraZe, Shutterstock/ Skrypnykov-Dmytro, Shutterstock

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