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How colostrum boosts the immune systems of new kittens

Kitten drinking milk from bottle advice

Colostrum helps protect kittens against certain diseases

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Colostrum is known to be very important to a new-born kitten. But what exactly does it do?

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS

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When a kitten is born, it's incredibly important that it feeds from its mum as soon as possible. This is because the milk that it receives then is called colostrum, which is full of goodness for the kitten in all sorts of way. Read on to find out what colostrum does.

How does colostrum and its ability to boost immunity work for kittens?

Colostrum refers to the first milk that the queen (mother cat) produces after giving birth. This will be thicker than the milk produced later in the lactation and contains roughly twice as much protein. This is mainly due to the high levels of proteins known as immunoglobulins, another term for antibodies.

Antibodies are one of the defence mechanisms of the immune system for fighting off infectious diseases. They are produced by white blood cells (specifically the B cell lymphocytes). Antibody production normally occurs as a response to when the body is exposed to a particular infection and each antibody will be specific to a certain disease.

Is cat colostrum high in vitamins?

When a kitten is born, they have not yet produced their own antibodies and so are at risk from a wide range of infections. They will receive significant levels of antibodies from their mother’s colostrum. This is called ‘passive immunity’, as these maternal antibodies give the kitten some protection against certain diseases while their own immature immune system develops.

It is really important that kittens receive colostrum as soon as possible after birth. This is because their intestine is only able to absorb the antibody proteins from the intestines into the blood-stream during the first 24 hours of life. After this point the digestive system will break down the antibodies and they will not be absorbed. In fact, the gut is best able to absorb antibodies for the first few hours after birth.

Colostrum is high in a range of other nutrients such as iron and vitamin A. It also has a laxative effect and thus helps kittens to go to the toilet.

How long do maternal antibodies last in kittens?

The length of protection from maternal antibodies varies between individuals and species. In cats it is likely that it will last a few weeks to a few months. The antibodies against different diseases will also provide protection for different lengths of time. It is important for kittens to receive their initial course of two vaccinations as their maternal antibodies start to wear off – with the first given at nine weeks of age and the second at 12. This will help to stimulate their own immune system to develop protection against certain diseases. If kittens are vaccinated too early, their levels of maternal antibodies can interfere with their ability to have an effective immune response triggered by the vaccine.

Can we boost maternal antibodies in a cat with colostrum supplements?

Sometimes colostrum supplements are given, with the aim of boosting the mother’s own antibody levels during pregnancy. Colostrum supplements are sometimes given to kittens that are unable to gain colostrum from their mother for any reason. These products are usually produced from cow colostrum and will not contain the same antibodies that are present in a queen’s milk, but they may have some nutritional benefit, if kittens are unable to take on natural colostrum. Speak to a vet for advice about whether a supplement is necessary.

Do kittens need colostrum? Why?

Yes, kittens do need natural colostrum from their mothers. This is because this helps protect kittens against certain diseases.

What do orphaned kittens do for colostrum?

Kittens are born with immature immune systems and they benefit from ‘passive immunity’ due to the antibodies they receive from their mother’s colostrum. If a kitten is orphaned before they are able to drink colostrum, or their mother is not producing for any reason, they will be at a greater risk from infectious diseases. You should speak to a vet or animal shelter about how to care appropriately for orphaned kittens. Orphaned kittens take a huge amount of care and you will need to be prepared to feed them every two hours, even during the night.

What should I do if my kitten is unwell after drinking colostrum?

If you think your kitten is unwell for any reason, you should contact a vet as an emergency. Young animals can go down hill very quickly and are particularly at risk from dehydration compared with older pets.

There are a large number of health problems that can occur in young kittens and most of these will be unrelated to drinking colostrum. Having said that, a very rare disease, neonatal isoerythrolysis (NI), can occur if kittens with blood group A drink colostrum from a queen with blood group B. This is because a queen of blood group B can have antibodies that attack type A blood cells, which can make type A kittens very unwell if they absorb these from colostrum into their bloodstream.

If you are planning on breeding from your female, or she becomes pregnant by accident, speak to a vet about whether she is likely to be at risk of causing NI in kittens and how to manage this. Certain breeds are more likely to be blood group A, and there are tests available to ensure that cats are bred with tomcats of a compatible blood group.

What should I say to a vet to get advice on colostrum for a cat? 

If your queen is pregnant and you have not bred cats before, it is worth speaking to a vet for advice. This will be a great opportunity to cover topics such as appropriate nutrition for a pregnant queen, the birthing process and ensuring kittens take on colostrum.

If a litter of kittens do not appear to be suckling within the first hour or two of birth, contact a vet. This could be an indication of an underlying health concern in the queen or the kittens. You can also ask whether the vet recommends a colostrum supplement for the kittens, and you can gain general care advice too.

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