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Colostrum and neonatal care

The neonatal period in puppies is considered to be the first 2 weeks after birth.  Born in a relatively immature state and completely dependent on their mother’s care the pre weaning mortality rate of many puppies is relatively high with approximately 20% of live-born puppies dying before they are 21 days old and a staggering 70% of deaths occurring within the first week post-partum¹ ²

Here we take a closer look at colostrum and investigate the benefits of this antibody rich nutrient.

What is colostrum?

Colostrum is a special type of milk produced in the first few days following birth which supplies specialised nutrition and immunity to new-born pups.  The immunity passed across from mother to pup is referred to as passive immunity and is provided in the form of immunoglobulins (antibodies) which are absorbed across the puppy’s intestine.  Once absorbed they offer protection against a number of infectious diseases. 

A short time frame

The timeframe when a new-born’s gastrointestinal tract is permeable to intact immunoglobulins in colostrum is very short.  The term “closure” refers to the change in gastrointestinal tracts absorptive capacity that precludes further absorption of large, intact proteins.  This limits the ability of the neonatal intestine to absorb intact proteins to about the first 48 hours of life, so it is vitally important for new-born puppies to receive adequate colostrum as soon as possible during the first day of birth.  In addition the immune system of puppies is not fully developed until they are approximately 16 weeks old so the transfer of this early protective immunity from the colostrum is very helpful.  Interestingly, puppies (as well as kittens, pigs and horses) obtain the greatest amount of maternally derived antibodies through the colostrum, which again emphasises the importance of immediate nursing and the provision of colostral antibodies. 

There is no guarantee that all puppies in a litter will receive sufficient colostrum – in fact the actual quantity of colostrum produced by a lactating bitch is unknown.

It’s not just about immunoglobulins

As well as providing these all important antibodies colostrum also provides important fluid.  The volume of fluid ingested after birth can contribute significantly to post-natal circulating volume³, which is important as a lack of adequate fluid after birth can contribute to circulatory failure in new-borns.    In addition to this the energy content of colostrum is incredibly impressive. 

Did you know that the energy value of colostrum is at least 20% greater than milk?

Although the energy content can vary between dams and there can be slight differences between teat pairs of the same dog. Age, breed and litter size have not been shown to affect the energy value. 52% of the energy supplied by the colostrum is protein and 40% comes from lipids; variations in the energy value are principally explained by variations in the lipid levels4.


Organ development

In addition to growth, colostrum is also involved in the development and maturation of certain organs, in particular the digestive tract. This is linked to colostral hormones and growth factors. One study reported that puppies fed colostrum had gastrointestinal tracts 60-95% better developed when compared to puppies of the same body weight given a synthetic milk formulation5.

Alternatives to colostrum

Sometimes things don’t always go according to plan and when the dam is absent or does not produce enough colostrum, it is essential to source a substitute in order to limit neonatal mortality. At the very least an energy supply must be provided for the puppies, but of course a supply of immunoglobulins is also required. If as a breeder you have another bitch who has given birth less than 2-3 days previously, you could either allow her to adopt the puppies or draw colostrum from her to feed to the puppies. If an adoptive dam whelped more than 2-3 days previously, her milk will ensure energy supply, but the supply of Immunoglobulins will be insufficient.


Canine colostrum is a very special milk with a very particular composition designed to meet a puppy’s specific needs – namely, provision of passive immunity, energy and certain factors required for organ growth. As more information becomes available about the needs of new-borns, it is becomes increasingly apparent that proper nutritional support during this time is essential for maintaining health and preventing neonatal illness and mortality.


  1. Mila H, Grellet A, Chastant-Maillard S. Prognostic value of birth weight and early weight gain on neonatal and pediatric mortality: a longitudinal study on 870 puppies. In: Program and Abstracts, 7th ISCFR Symposium 2012;163-164.
  2. 2. Gill MA. Perinatal and late neonatal mortality in the dog. University of Sydney 2001. PhD thesis; available at; Accessed 23rd September 2015.
  3. Hoskins JD: Puppy and kitten losses. In Hoskins JD, editor: Veterinary paediatrics: dogs and cats from birth to six months, Philadelphia, 1995, Saunders
  4. Mila H, Grellet A, Feugier A, et al. Nutritional and immunological composition of canine colostrum. In Proceedings, 18th EVSSAR Congress 2015.
  5. Heird WC, Schwarz SM, Hansen IH. Colostrum-induced enteric mucosal growth in beagle puppies. Pediatr Res 1984;18(6):512-515.
Colostrum and neonatal care
Colostrum and neonatal care
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