Feeding the Nursing Cat

By Tammy Hunter, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, DAAPM, DACVSMR, CVPP, CRPP

Breeding, Pet Services

I bred my cat and she is getting ready to deliver her kittens. I have heard that nursing her kittens will be even more energy intense than pregnancy. Is this true?

It is correct that nursing (lactation) requires more energy calories than any other life stage. Optimal nutrition for reproduction and lactation is essential for:

  1. Having a successful conception/pregnancy
  2. Providing the queen with her best ability to deliver her kittens
  3. Thriving kittens before and after birth

The various stages of reproduction—heat (estrus), pregnancy, lactation, and weaning— provide unique stresses to the body. Each creates specific nutritional concerns that should be addressed to maximize both queen and kitten health.

"Each [stage] creates specific nutritional concerns that should be addressed to maximize both queen and kitten health."

Cats are pregnant for approximately 63–65 days. A healthy, well-fed queen will experience steady weight gain throughout her pregnancy, storing energy to support lactation. A highly digestible, high-quality kitten formulation is generally recommended during feline pregnancy, and multiple small meals per day is an ideal method for promoting adequate food intake.

At delivery, queens will lose about 40% of the weight they have gained during pregnancy. The rest of the weight will be lost during lactation, due to the workload placed on the queen’s body. Once the kittens are born, the queen can increase her food intake because she will have more room in her abdomen, but the energy density of the food must be high or she will not be physically able to consume enough to sustain milk production, weight, and body condition. Periodic assessments of the queen’s body condition provide opportunities to fine-tune feedings. Feeding during lactation, like pregnancy, is best accomplished using a highly digestible, high quality kitten formulation.

"Peak milk production and the queen’s peak energy needs occur at 3-4 weeks of lactation, but the peak food requirement occurs at 6-7 weeks post-partum."

Peak milk production and the queen’s peak energy needs occur at three to four weeks of lactation, but the peak food requirement occurs at six to seven weeks post-partum. Remember, the kittens are also consuming the queen’s food as they approach weaning age.

Free-choice feeding during the first three to four weeks of lactation, unless the cat only has one or two kittens, provides many advantages. The queen can eat on her own schedule, she can consume smaller amounts of food each time she eats, and the kittens can begin sampling solid food as soon as they are able (at about three weeks of age).

Do I need to change how I feed my cat as she weans her kittens?

Restricting food to the queen before and during weaning can help her taper her milk production, and make the transition more comfortable. On day one of weaning, withhold the queen’s food, allowing the kittens to eat their food while they are away from their mother. They can all be together that night, and the kittens will suckle a bit. On day two of weaning, the kittens are separated from the queen and she can be feed approximately half of her pre-breeding portion and formulation. (Talk to your veterinarian before restricting your cat’s food, to ensure that this is appropriate for your cat’s body condition.) Over four or five days, increase to the full pre-breeding portion and meal feeding. The kittens should not be allowed access to nurse during this time as that delays drying up milk production.

With a bit of planning and input from your veterinarian, you can create a nutritionally sound plan for pregnancy and lactation, setting the stage for both a healthy cat and healthy kittens.

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