Dog drinking milk from a plate

Colostrum is naturally produced by a female for her new-born.

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Benefits of adult dogs having colostrum

By Dr Hester Mulhall MA, VetMB, MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

It's true that colostrum is very good for puppies, but is it also helpful for adult dogs?

Drinking colostrum from their mum is very important for just-born puppies, because of all the goodness that's in it. Yet what if the new puppies aren't suckling? And can older dogs have colostrum? Read on to find out everything you need to know about this milk.

What is colostrum?

Colostrum is the first milk that a female produces for her new-born offspring. It is usually thicker, more cream-coloured and contains high levels of antibodies and certain vitamins and nutrients. Antibodies are small proteins produced by the immune system to help combat infections.

Before birth, the puppies receive oxygen and nutrients from their mother via the placenta on the lining of the womb. The structure of the placenta varies in different mammals, but in dogs (as with many other pets or farm animals) it only allows for a very small amount of antibody transfer from the mother to the foetuses. This means that the antibodies that puppies receive from their mother via colostrum are very important for providing some initial immunity against certain diseases, known as ‘passive immunity’. Over time the puppy’s own immune system will start to develop antibodies against infectious diseases in its surroundings, and puppies should also receive their course of vaccinations.

How soon after birth should puppies have colostrum?

Puppies must drink colostrum within the first few hours of birth. This is because their intestines are able to absorb these larger antibody proteins across into the blood-stream when they are born. The ability of the gut to absorb these rapidly decreases. There is a lot more research into colostrum in farm animals than pets, and studies show that the ability to take on antibodies in calves halves within 12 hours. It is likely that this is even quicker in puppies.

It is important to differentiate between this natural colostrum produced by the mother and colostrum supplements. Supplements are generally based on cow colostrum, so they will not provide antibody immunity to puppies as colostrum from their mother would. This is because different animals produce different antibodies. Having said that, there may still be nutritional benefits to the puppy, if they are unable to take on enough colostrum from their mother for some reason. Colostrum supplements are also sometimes given to adult dogs.

What are the benefits of colostrum for adult dogs?

There is not a lot of research on the use of colostrum in adult animals. This is because it is produced in nature to help boost the immune system of newborns. Development after birth means that adult dogs are unable to absorb antibodies across their digestive tract, so it is very unlikely to benefit the immune system in a meaningful way. In fact, the normal digestive processes in an adult animal will break down these antibodies in the gut.

Another consideration is that colostrum contains lactose, which is a sugar that adult dogs are unable to digest, as they lack enough of the right enzyme. This means that dairy products, including milk or colostrum, can cause significant digestive upset. Some colostrum supplements do not contain lactose and breeders may give these to pregnant females.

The list here includes some conditions in which it has been suggested that colostrum or colostrum supplements may have a benefit. Yet these are generally due to equivalent trends in human health, and there is little research or evidence for the benefits of colostrum in these conditions. If you think your pet may be suffering from a health problem on this list, please visit a vet and do not attempt home-treatments. The outcome of many of these illnesses can be significantly improved by early veterinary intervention. These illnesses are: chronic gut issues; viral illness, allergies; autoimmune diseases; heart disease; diabetes; weight loss; athletic stress; wound healing; bone and cartilage repair.

Where do I get colostrum and do I need a prescription?

Colostrum is produced naturally by a female as the first milk she has after giving birth. But there are also colostrum supplements and these do not require a prescription. If you think your puppy or dog might need colostrum, discuss this with a vet.

How much colostrum should I give to my dog?

If you are using a colostrum supplement for puppies, follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for frequency and quantity of feeding. They will initially require feeding every couple of hours.

How does colostrum work for dogs with anxiety?

If you think your dog might have anxiety, speak to a vet or a registered canine behaviourist for advice. There are certain milk proteins in natural colostrum that may have calming affects.

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

If a female has just delivered puppies but they are not suckling within the first hour or two, contact a vet immediately for advice. It is important for puppies to take on colostrum as soon as possible after birth. The mother might need a check-over to make sure she is healthy, if she is struggling to produce colostrum. The puppies might also need a health check to make sure there isn’t an underlying cause, if they are not feeding. Phone a vet for advice on whether a vet visit is necessary – and also for information on getting hold of back-up colostrum replacement.

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