Colostrum or “the first milk” is produced by the dam and is rich in maternal antibodies. The neonate should have a first drink from the dam in the first few hours of life. More than 90% of the passive immunity acquired by neonates comes from colostral intake. The neonate has maximal absorption of colostrum by the gut in the first eight hours of life; from this point it declines until no further absorption occurs 48-72 hours after birth.
Neonates deprived of colostrum are highly susceptible to infection, sepsis and fading syndrome. Therefore if there is failure of the neonate to drink or absorb colostrum, a substitute is ideally given. In the cat, adult milk contains nearly the same quantity of immunoglobulins as does colostrum, therefore if a lactating queen is available in the cattery, ensure the neonate drinks plenty of milk from this queen. The orphaned kitten may still require further colostrum replacement.
Treatment of neonatal puppies and kittens with adult serum has been proposed. Serum is the component of blood that does not contain white or red blood cells but contains immunoglobulins (antibodies). Serum from healthy vaccinated adults (the dam, or any other healthy/compatible adult from the kennel / cattery) could therefore technically be used as a source of serum. This serum can
be given subcutaneously (i.e. under the skin) or intraperitoneally (i.e. into the abdominal body cavity). The serum is not usually given orally as it limits the amount of serum that can be given and absorption of immunoglobulins after 8 hours is questionable.
Serum in Puppies
The research on correction of failure of passive transfer in puppies using serum are summarised below:
Poffenbarger et al, 1991:
This study used two groups of puppies; one group that was permitted to drink the colostrum from their mother right after birth and a second group that were not permitted to receive colostrum and instead were given adult serum, orally or sub-cutaneously. This study demonstrated that puppies that had been allowed to drink the colostrum from their mother had significantly more antibodies in their system than the puppies that had been given serum.
Mila et al, 2014:
A more recent study with a similar design concluded that oral supplementation with hyper-immunized canine plasma neither decreased risk of mortality, nor improved IgG [antibody] concentration at 2 days of age in puppies.
It appears that canine adult serum brings no real benefit to newborn puppies with a failure of passive transfer of immunity. Despite these results, many veterinarians would still choose to attempt treatment with serum in a fading puppy to maximise the chances of survival.
Serum in Kittens
In kittens, the situation is more promising! The graph below comes from a study performed in 2001
that demonstrated that in cats, treatment with serum subcutaneously or intraperitoneally could be an excellent alternative to colostrum.
Use of serum as a colostrum substitute in newborn kittens.
There are limitations to keep in mind with treatment using serum. The protocols for treatment often
stipulate volumes of approximately 5ml be given every 8 hours over a 24 hour period. This requires
large volumes of blood to be collected under sterile conditions from a healthy, vaccinated adult cat.
This could prove to be impractical. Veterinary hospitals that frequently treat neonates with serum may consider harvesting serum and storing it frozen for future treatments.
- Royal Canin Scientific Services Australia