While choosing the right brand and flavor of cat food can be difficult, it’s substantially easier to pick the right food for each stage of your cat’s life. Thanks to labeling requirements, pet food manufacturers are required to declare what lifestyle and age their food is intended for. Terms like “for growth” indicate that the food is designed for kittens, while “for maintenance” foods are appropriate for older cats.
What’s the Difference, Really?
Both kitten food and adult cat food are available in a wide range of flavors and textures, in both canned and dry varieties. The biggest difference between the two is their formulation. Kitten food is required to contain more fats, proteins, and calories than adult cat food. Adult cat food contains fewer calories, and often contains vitamins and minerals to aid in aging well.
The second key difference is in their availability. Whether you buy your pet food in a supermarket or a pet supply store, you’ll find a range of adult cat foods, both canned and dry. In a pinch, you can pick up a can or small box of adult cat food at a convenience store or gas station. Kitten food can be more difficult to find; even a big-box pet store will only have a few options.
Kitten Food Pros & Cons
- High in fat, calories, and nutrients
- Promotes growth and development
- Designed for easy digestion
- Limited flavors and textures
- Unhealthy for adult cats
- Not available in as many stores
Adult Cat Food Pros & Cons
- Specially formulated to maintain health
- Sold nearly everywhere
- Wide variety of flavors and textures
- Not suitable for kittens
- Can be expensive
- Brands vary greatly in quality
When to Feed Kitten Food vs. Cat Food
Veterinarians and pet food manufacturers alike recommend specially formulated kitten food for growing cats. Once your cat reaches 80-90% of his full size, you should transition to an adult formulation. Most breeds reach adult size around their first birthday; larger breeds, like Maine Coons, may not reach their full growth for 18–24 months.
Your Kitten’s Nutritional Needs
Kittens have greater nutritional needs than adult cats. Because of their size, kittens have smaller stomachs than adults. To account for that, it’s crucial to feed young cats a nutrient-dense food that provides them with what they need to grow and develop.
The three key components of cat food are protein, fat, and calories. These need to be balanced correctly for the dietary needs of your pet at every life stage.
Feeding your cat the correct number of calories balances their energy needs with their weight. A growing cat needs more calories to provide them with the boundless energy that kittens never seem to exhaust.
Once a cat reaches adulthood, maintenance is key. Adult cats are less active than kittens and naturally require fewer calories as they age. The caloric density of adult cat food is substantially lower than it is for kitten food, which helps cats remain slim as they age.
A higher protein and fat content help kittens develop their overall strength. According to the ASPCA, kittens should get about a third of their energy from protein. Kitten food usually contains 35-50% protein, whereas adult food is closer to 25-40%.
Unless your pet has a specific health concern that requires additional protein, you should stay within these ratios; extra protein does not confer any benefits.
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Fats and Fatty Acids
Dietary fats are a necessary part of a cat’s diet. Omega-3s and omega-6s promote overall growth and development while also playing a key role in many organ functions. The ratio of these fatty acids required to maintain good health changes over the lifespan of your cat.
Certain fatty acids help ease inflammation and are recommended for senior cats; others promote growth and are recommended for kittens. The Association of American Feed Control Officials requires that food labeled for kittens contains specific omega-3s—eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acids—but has no such requirements for adult food.
Vitamins and Minerals
Kittens require specific vitamins and minerals to develop strong immune systems like vitamin E and selenium. The AAFCO’s Nutrient Profile for cat food indicates that kittens need nearly twice as much calcium as adults do. Calcium and phosphorus together build and maintain strong bones.
Some kitten foods contain other vitamins and minerals to promote good health and growth, while adult foods focus on nutrients that reduce inflammation or make food easier to digest.
Feeding Kitten Food to an Adult Cat
Because of its higher ratio of fat, calories, and protein, kitten food is typically too nutrient-dense for adult cats. Your cat may not adjust their intake to match their activity level and end up eating substantially more calories than necessary. A grown cat that eats kitten food will likely become overweight.
There are some cases when an adult cat should be fed kitten food. Certain formulations are more easily digested. A cat in poor health may need the extra nutrition provided by nutrient-rich food. In situations like these, you’ll want to speak with your veterinarian for advice before making such a drastic change to your feeding routine.
Feeding Adult Food to a Kitten
A hungry kitten is an unhealthy kitten. In their first months, kittens need a lot from their food, both in terms of volume, frequency, and nutritional content. Adult cat food simply is not formulated to meet their needs. Malnourishment, especially in their first months, can cause a number of issues ranging from decreased energy to neurological problems.
Aside from the long-term effects of a poor diet, hungry kittens are unhappy pets. Not having enough satisfying food makes anyone cranky, and cats are no exception. Even the most well-trained of kittens can become destructive—knocking things over on purpose, clawing inappropriately, meowing incessantly—all to drive your attention to their food dish.
Food for All Life Stages
Some pet food formulations are labeled “for all life stages” and straddle the line between cat and kitten formulas. These foods can be less than ideal simply because they are not optimized for any particular age group. Depending on their content, they can promote obesity in adults while not fulfilling the needs of a growing kitten.
You want to do right by your cat, regardless of their age. By starting with kitten food, you’re setting your cat up to be healthy over their entire lifetime. Switching to adult food at the right time maintains your cat’s weight while supplementing their changing needs to mitigate signs of aging. By choosing the appropriate food for their stage of life, you’re doing the best thing possible for your cat’s overall health and well-being.
- Related Read: 10 Best Wet Kitten Foods
- You might also like: Indoor vs Outdoor Cat Food: What’s the Difference?
Featured Image Credit: Marian Weyo, Shutterstock/ Seattle Cat Photo, Shutterstock/ CNuisin, Shutterstock
- What’s the Difference, Really?
- When to Feed Kitten Food vs. Cat Food
- Final thoughts