The age when kittens can leave their mom is around 12 weeks. By this age, your newest addition to the family will already be eating solid food and drinking water. But if you have found a newborn kitten or have a cat that is expecting a litter of its own, you will need to wean the kittens off their mom’s milk.
If this is something you’re facing, you’re probably wondering “When do kittens start eating food and drinking water?”. Although all cats are different, weaning typically starts at around 4 weeks of age. This process will usually happen naturally and occurs at the same time that their teeth appear.
Transitioning to solid food is a gradual process though and doesn’t happen overnight. Weaning kittens off their mother’s milk (or off a bottle if you are hand-rearing your kittens) takes time and patience. You need to feed your kittens the right food at the right time to ensure the transition is smooth.
In this guide, I talk more about how you can help this transition and what you should be feeding your kitten at each stage of its life. Plus, I share all my other top tips on encouraging kittens to eat. This will get your kittens off to the best start in life possible!
When Do Kittens Start Eating Solid Food?
When kittens are newborns, they feed exclusively on their mother’s milk. This is essential for healthy growth as milk contains all of the valuable nutrients that kittens need to thrive. Milk also contains immunoglobulins which help to strengthen the immune system of vulnerable kittens to protect them from contracting diseases.
At around 4 weeks of age, kittens first start eating solid food. This is around the same time that their teeth start to grow through their gums. (Side note – teething can be difficult for kittens, so check out these kitten chew toys to help soothe their sore gums). This marks the start of the weaning process which usually lasts around 4-6 weeks.
Most kittens will start trying wet cat food at around 4 weeks old on their own accord. As their teeth are coming through at this age, it is uncomfortable for the mom when the kittens feed. Therefore, the mother also encourages her kittens to eat food by pushing her kittens away whenever they try to feed on her milk. So, weaning should be an easy and natural process.
However, ensuring the weaning process does happen at this age is important. Allowing kittens to feed off of their mother for too long can make the transition to solid food and water more challenging. Besides, as kittens get older they need more protein-rich food to facilitate natural and healthy growth. If your kitten is still showing no interest in food at 4 weeks old, it’s time to step in and help.
When Do Kittens Start Drinking Water?
Weaning kittens off their mother is largely about getting them to transition to eating solid cat food. However, you also have to teach kittens to drink water. When feeding off of their mother, kittens can easily remain healthy and hydrated. Yet when transitioning to solid food drinking water is a must. Without this complimentary water intake, your kittens will be dehydrated.
You should easily be able to tell if your kittens are dehydrated as you’ll notice that your kitten is weak and sleepy. Water is important in almost every bodily function. Without enough water, kittens’ blood volume decreases, and their muscles and brains don’t receive the blood flow that they require.
Therefore, it is a good idea to introduce your kittens to water at the same time they start trying solid food: at around 4 weeks of age. This ensures that the liquid missing from eating milk is replaced. Your kittens should be moving around and exploring your home by this age, so place a few dishes of fresh water around for them to explore at their own pace.
Make sure you only leave small shallow bowls out that your kitten can easily drink from. Moreover, ensure you always supervise young kittens around water. Kittens have a hard time regulating their body temperature and need to be dried if they get wet.
How Do I Wean Kittens?
As already mentioned, the weaning process usually starts naturally. Kittens will begin to show an interest in solid food all by themselves. At the same time, the mother will encourage her kittens to eat by pushing them off each time they try and feed from her breasts.
However, if you are weaning an orphaned kitten you will need to kick-start the process yourself. You’ll know when the time is right as your kitten will start biting and chewing on the bottle that you are feeding them with. This is a sure sign that they are ready to start munching on solid foods.
Once your kittens are ready, you can begin feeding them solid food! But things aren’t quite as simple as putting down a bowl of kibble and expecting your kittens to eat it. You need to gradually introduce them to food, get them used to the taste, and increase the solidity of the food.
Here is my tried and tested step-by-step process for weaning that you can follow:
1. Introduction to Food and Water
Before you put any cat food out in a bowl, you want to introduce your kitten to the taste of their food. Mix a small amount of their food with kitten formula, dab a little on your index finger, and wipe your finger gently around their mouth for them to lick off. Once they taste cat food for the first time, they’ll start searching for it elsewhere.
This is the same time that you can introduce water to your kittens as well. Not only will ensure they remain hydrated when they transition to solid food, but will also get them used to eat from a bowl. I’m going to mention this again as it is important: only use shallow bowls and always supervise your kitten. You don’t want them to get cold and wet or they could catch pneumonia!
2. Feed Wet Cat Food
A question I am constantly asked is “Do kittens need wet food?” and the answer is yes. While your kitten’s teeth are coming through, their gums will be sensitive and dry kibble might hurt them to eat. This could cause them to form a negative association with food and make the weaning process more challenging than it needs to be.
Besides, kittens need to learn how to chew. Learning with wet cat food is much easier. And if kittens don’t chew wet food properly it won’t matter as much and isn’t nearly as much as a choking hazard. On the other hand, kittens could choke on kibble when they don’t know how to chew it properly.
For weeks 4-5, mix a little wet food with formula in a bowl and let your kitten eat this. Ensure you watch how much your kitten eats initially. At this stage, they might spend more time playing with their food than they do eating it! Supplement with a formula where necessary so that your kittens are getting all of the calories and nutrients they need for healthy growth.
3. Transition to Dry Food
For weeks 5-6, your kittens will be more used to eating food from their bowl. Now is the time you can start introducing dry kibble into their diet. You should do this now even if you plan on feeding your cat wet food only. You never know when you might need to switch to a dry food diet, so cats should be introduced to both wet and dry food at a young age.
When making the transition, be sure to moisten the kibble with water so it is still easy for them to chew. You might also consider mixing a little of the wet food with the dry food to encourage them to eat it. The taste and smell of the wet food they are familiar with can make the change easier.
4. Feed Dry Kibble
At the age of 6-7 weeks old, you can start to reduce the amount of moisture you add to their dry cat food. Gradually add less and less liquid to their bowl of dry food until they’re happily munching on the kibble as it comes. This marks the end of the weaning process – congratulations! The timeline does vary slightly, but this will usually happen at around 8 weeks of age.
Other Tips for Weaning Kittens
The above process is a method that I have used every time I breed my British Shorthairs, so I’m sure you’ll find it just as successful. For an even smoother transition, here are some additional tips on weaning kittens I swear by:
- Use Kitten Food: It is super important to choose a cat food that is formulated specifically for kittens. Kittens have different nutritional needs to adult cats and senior felines, and using cat food intended for kittens ensures that these nutritional needs are met. Don’t bother buying separate adult cat food for the mother either – while she is nursing she’ll benefit from eating kitten formula as well. She could do with the extra calories to support her litter.
- Keep You Kittens Warm: When kittens start eating food and drinking water, things can get messy! They might knock their water bowls over, or stick their head into their wet food. It can be funny to watch your kittens messing around, but if you don’t keep them warm they can fall sick. Pop a heating pad under half of their nesting box and line the entire thing with towels. If you ever see your kittens really wet, dry them gently with a towel.
- Supplement with Formula: Many people think if they stop feeding their kitten formula they will get hungry and eat their food. But this isn’t how it works. Some kittens won’t transition well to food and without formula, they won’t be consuming all they need for healthy growth. Check your kitten is gaining around 10lbs of weight per day. If not, feed them a little formula alongside their food to ensure they’re growing at a healthy rate.
- Use Flat Dishes: The flatter the dish you are feeding your kittens from, the easier they’ll find it to eat. A saucer or even a lid from a Tupperware box works well and means they can get their faces right in there. Of course, this is bound to be messy! However, getting a little messy is a must and you need to let kittens play with their food at first. Most kittens will learn to contain the mess and eat solid foods within a couple of weeks.
- Beware of Constipation: Dehydration is common when kittens start eating solid food, so you need to keep an eye on their stools. More often than not, kittens become a little constipated. One way to help is by giving your kitten a gentle massage after they have eaten. This helps to stimulate their gut and promotes healthy digestion. Make sure you leave a small litter tray nearby where your kittens can do their business.
- Be Patient: Most cats will be eating food and drinking water by the time they are 8 weeks old. This means the entire weaning process only takes around a month, and sometimes can be as little as 2 weeks. However, bear in mind that all kittens are different and some will take longer to transition than others. Be patients and keep encouraging your kittens to try solid food. If you are concerned, speak to your vet for advice.
- Separate the Mother: While weaning, kittens can stay with their mother. They’ll still be nursing off her as they transition to solid food, so it is important she sticks around. However, make sure you do give some periods of separation. This helps to encourage independence, besides giving the mom time to rest and recover. Keep the periods of separation to around 2-3 hours tops initially.
- Keep Other Cats Away: Do you live in a multi-cat household? If so, you might want to keep your new kittens separate from your other cats. Cat depression after a new kitten is common and you might see your cat hissing at new kittens. Make sure you give your kittens space from their unwelcoming family members – a boisterous cat stealing your kitten’s food will make weaning a whole lot harder!
Is Weaning Different for Hand-Reared Kittens?
Most kittens will be around their mother and the weaning process will start naturally. But sadly some kittens don’t have their mom around or the mother rejects her new litter. In these cases, you’ll have to hand-rear them and feed them from a bottle for their first few weeks of life.
Hand-rearing kittens can be an exhausting and time-consuming process. They must be bottle-fed every 2 hours when they are newborns! Ensure you use special cat milk as well and avoid cow’s milk at all costs. Cat milk contains all the same nutrients as milk produced by the mother and it is rich in vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and antibodies to facilitate healthy growth.
Feeding a kitten – or worse, an entire litter of kittens – every couple of hours both day and night is a tiring job. As such, many owners want to know whether they can wean their kittens earlier. But unfortunately, this isn’t recommended. You should still wait to 4 weeks of age, but you can start earlier if there are signs that your kittens are ready.
You can usually tell when your hand-reared kittens are ready to start transitioning to solid food and water as they will start to bite and chew the bottle. The kittens will also be more mobile and should have started exploring their environment. At this point, you can start the weaning process following the same steps listed above.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
So, when do kittens start eating food and drinking water? This typically happens around 4 weeks of age, the same time that kittens’ teeth start coming through. At this age, kittens are also more mobile and start exploring. Their independence is well on the way and now is the ideal time to start the weaning process.
Weaning usually happens naturally for cats that live with their mother. Make sure you have the right cat food out and encourage your kittens to try it. Giving them a little separation from their mother will also help them find their independence more quickly. In fact, use all the tips and tricks in this article for the best chances of success!
By the age of 8 weeks old, most kittens will be fully weaned off their mother’s milk. But if your kitten takes a little longer, don’t panic. All cats learn at different rates! If you are at all worried about your kitten’s health or eating habits, speak to your vet.