Grey kitten

Kittens are born with immature immune systems.

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How can I boost my kitten's immune system?

By Dr Alice Watson MA VetMB MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

If a kitten doesn't develop a strong immune system from the very start, they can be in big trouble. So how can it boost its immuntity?

The immune system is the body's defence system against germs (e.g. bacteria and viruses). Kittens need a functional immune system in order to survive, and this early immunity is provided by the mother (passive immunity) and later will develop within the kitten itself. Passive immunity is provided through the mother’s first milk (colostrum). Colostrum is rich in proteins called antibodies, which boost the kittens immune system once absorbed into the body.

What can be done about a kitten's weak immune system?

Kittens are born with immature immune systems that are unable to respond to infections. This means kittens must get some protection from their mothers after birth. Drinking colostrum (a queen’s first milk) within the first few hours of life boosts their immune systems, so that they can thrive.

Colostrum is rich in antibodies that can be absorbed through a newborn kitten’s intestines and into the blood, giving them antibodies in their blood streams and providing immunity to some infectious diseases. It is incredibly important that the kitten gets enough colostrum soon after being born to enable them to survive. If kittens do not get enough colostrum, they are at a higher risk of infection, sepsis and fading kitten syndrome.

Where does colostrum come from?

Colostrum is the milk produced by a queen (mother cat) for the first 24 hours after giving birth. It is produced by the mammary glands (breasts) and is generally slightly off-white or yellow in colour, and is slightly thicker than normal milk. It is best for the kitten to drink colostrum from its own mother, as she will have developed immunity to the infectious agents in the area they live.

An alternative source of colostrum includes colostrum from another healthy queen, although the blood types of the queens should be checked, as there is a risk of causing anaemia in the kittens if the blood groups are not compatible (known as neonatal isoerythrolysis). Before using a different queen, it is worth talking to a vet. Another option is using serum (separated blood) from a healthy adult cat. You should always discuss this option with a vet. Ideally any donors should live in the same environment as the kittens, so that the cat has developed immunity to the same germs that the kittens may come into contact with.

What does colostrum give kittens?

Colostrum is rich in energy, nutrients, growth factors and antibodies. Antibodies boost the kittens' immune system giving them some protection from infectious diseases until their immune systems develop and mature. The antibodies provide protection in two ways, by directly binding germs in the gut and also by being absorbed into the bloodstream. Antibodies in the colostrum can only be absorbed into the blood for a short period of time after birth (around 24 hours). After this time, the intestines (guts) are no longer able to take up antibodies. Colostrum is also rich in other hormones and growth factors that help kittens to grow and their organs to develop.

How can I boost my kitten's immune system?

It is important to try to get a kitten to suckle as soon as possible, to ensure a good uptake of antibodies from the colostrum. To make sure the colostrum is the best quality possible, it is important to feed good quality food to the queen throughout pregnancy and lactation, and to ensure that she is fully vaccinated. If the queen is not producing any milk or the kitten is not sucking, it may be necessary to talk to a vet about giving the newborn kitten serum to give some protection.

Does a kitten have a strong immune system?

When a kitten is born their immune system is immature (weak), meaning that they are unable to respond properly to infections. A kitten gets some immunity from their mother's colostrum in the form of antibodies, which help protect the kitten from infections that the mother has previously been exposed to.

As a kitten gets older their immune systems develops and gets stronger, meaning that the kitten's own body can respond to infections. As the kitten’s immune system develops, immunity gained from their mother wears off, usually around the time that vaccinations are recommended.

How can I boost my kitten's immune system with colostrum?

It is important to make sure your kitten gets enough colostrum and is suckling well on its mother within the first few hours after being born. If a queen is not producing milk, you may want to talk to a vet about how you can help.

Alternatives to the mother's colostrum are colostrum from another queen who has just given birth, or serum from a healthy adult cat. It is best to talk to a vet about this, as you may need to check the blood groups of the cats to make sure you don’t cause anaemia in the kittens. It is not a good idea to use colostrum from another species e.g. a dog or a cow.

What should I ask a vet about colostrum and kitten immunity? 

If you have any concerns about your kitten suckling, you may want to talk to a vet about ways you can help. This may include asking how you can encourage suckling or what to do if the queen isn’t producing milk or allowing the kittens to suckle. When planning a pregnancy, you may also like to ensure that the queen is fully vaccinated. You may also discuss with a vet how you can adjust the queen's diet to ensure that she produces the best quality colostrum possible.

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