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How colostrum gives immunity to kittens

ginger kitten drinking milk from bottle advice

Colostrum from a kitten's mother is safe

© Shutterstock

Colostrum, the milk from a kitten's mum, provides immunity for newborns. But how exactly does that work? And what happens if a kitten can't get any?

By Dr Alice Watson MA VetMB MRCVS

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Colostrum is the first milk produced by a queen after giving birth. Colostrum is off-white or yellow in colour and slightly thicker than normal milk. It is rich in energy, fats and proteins to boost immunity (antibodies).

How important is colostrum for kittens? 

Kittens are born with immature immune systems, meaning they are unable to fight off infections. Kittens must get some protection from their mother's colostrum after birth. Drinking colostrum within the first few hours of life allows antibodies to work directly in the gut to protect the kitten against germs they may have eaten. Antibodies will also be absorbed through the intestines into the blood. Antibodies from the mother in the blood boost the kitten's immune system and will give them immunity to some infectious diseases. It is very important that a kitten gets enough colostrum after being born to enable them to survive. If a kitten does not get enough colostrum, they are at higher risk of infection, sepsis and fading kitten syndrome.

Colostrum is also important as it provides energy to the newborn kitten, preventing the blood sugar level dropping too low. It is also rich in nutrients that help the kitten to grow. Colostrum contains other proteins (hormones and growth factors) that help the kitten's organs to develop and mature.

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Do kittens need colostrum?

It is very important that kittens get colostrum from their mother to enable them to survive. Kittens need colostrum to boost their immune systems, provide energy and nutrients to allow them to grow and survive. If kittens do not get enough colostrum, they are at a higher risk of infection, sepsis and fading kitten syndrome.

Kittens that do not receive colostrum from their own mother may be given colostrum from another queen that has just given birth. But bear in mind that it's important to check the blood group of the queen to check that it won’t cause anaemia in the kittens (neonatal isoerythrolysis).

Is colostrum safe for kittens?

Colostrum from a kitten's mother is safe and it is important that a kitten gets enough colostrum to have a strong enough immune system to survive. The main risk of giving anything by mouth to young animals is a risk of them breathing it in (aspirating), so it is best that the kitten suckles its mother and is not syringe-fed, unless there is no other alternative.

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How long do orphan kittens need colostrum?

Colostrum must be drunk within the first 24 hours of a kitten being born to allow passive immunity to develop in the kitten. Orphan kittens will hopefully have received some colostrum from their mothers after being born. If this is not possible, suckling from another queen who has just given birth for the first 24 hours is a good alternative. If there is no access to another queen that has just given birth, there is another option. That option is serum (separated blood) that comes from another healthy adult cat and it may be injected into a kitten to boost their immune system. You may also like to discuss the use of serum in kittens with a vet, if you want to hear more about it.

After 24-48 hours, the kitten's intestines ‘close’ and cannot take up antibodies. After this time normal formula kitten milk can be fed by syringe.

How should I talk to a vet about colostrum and immunity for a kitten?

If you think that your kitten has not suckled on the queen, it is important to talk to a vet. In view of this, you may like to discuss the option of injecting serum from another healthy adult cat to improve the kitten's immunity. If you are worried about your kitten’s immune system, you may also want to discuss this with a vet.

Other things that you may need to discuss with a vet include when to vaccinate the queen prior to mating her. This will protect the queen, but will also make sure the colostrum is as good quality as possible, so that her kittens are protected. You may also want to discuss with a vet how and when you should adjust the queen's diet, so that she produces the best quality colostrum possible.

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