Bovine colostrum supplementation is showing a lot of promise for health issues in dogs and cats – from respiratory infections to diarrhea to periodontal disease.
Colostrum is the “high octane milk” produced by mammals during the last few weeks of pregnancy. It can be considered “high octane” because it contains factors not found in the “regular” milk produced during the rest of lactation.
Colostrum contains a combination of mammary gland secretions and proteins that are actively transferred from the blood under hormonal influence, resulting in a nearly 100-fold higher concentration of immunoglobulin as compared to regular milk.
Traditionally, the necessity of colostrum for providing life-assuring passive immunity to the immunologically-naïve neonate has been most recognized in large animal medicine. However, colostrum is equally essential to companion animal species like dogs and cats, since compared to humans, all domestic animals receive very little, if any, immunoglobulin transplacentally.
Recently, there has been growing interest in the administration of bovine colostrum (BC) to animals and humans beyond the neonatal period.
The components of colostrum
Generally, aside from being a source of protein, bovine immunoglobulins would be of little benefit in other species. But most of the other active ingredients in BC have a propensity for cross-reaction in other species, such as dogs and cats.
- Bovine colostrum contains a variety of factors related to the innate or nonspecific immune system, including lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and lysozyme, all of which can have direct “toxic” effects on bacteria and/or viruses.
- Colostrum also contains soluble mediators or cytokines, including interleukins and interferon. These “messengers” are involved in immune regulation, inflammation and immune cell recruitment.
- The sugars or oligosaccarhides in colostrum may affect the growth of pathogens, but perhaps more importantly, they promote the growth of beneficial microflora in the large intestine, thereby affection overall gut health.
- In addition to various immune mediators, bovine colostrum also contains a variety of growth factors, including insulin-like growth factors, as well as epithelial, endothelia, fibroblast and platelet-derived growth factors. These offer both local health-promoting activity in the gut, and act systemically.
The main reason bovine colostrum has been used as a supplement in other animals is a simple matter of production volume and accessibility. Calves ingest/require two to four liters of colostrum in the first few hours of life, yet dairy cattle make about 15 liters of high quality colostrum over a 24-hour periparturient period. Since colostrum by law can’t be included in the milk supply for human consumption, extra colostrum has historically been discarded or fed to a lucky barn cat. This unused extra colostrum is now used for the production of colostrum supplements, generally in the form of powder.
Colostrum use in companion animals
Many more studies have been performed on the supplemental use of BC in humans than in companion animals. However, here are some reasonable uses of bovine colostrum in dogs and cats, based on available data and current immunological and physiological thinking.
1. Respiratory disease
Upper respiratory tract infection (URTI) is one of the most common infectious disease syndromes encountered in veterinary practice. BC could be beneficial as a prophylactic against URTI, especially if given to animals before and during boarding or other stressful events involving exposure to infected animals. From a clinical perspective, there have as yet been no field trials to directly address this issue in cats and dogs; however, an association between BC supplementation and reduced clinical or subclinical URTI has been reported in people, and more recently, horses.
The mechanism of action could arise from the direct action of colostral antimicrobial factors, such as lactoferrin. In culture, bovine lactoferrin has been shown to have antiviral activity on feline and canine herpesviruses and feline calicivirus. Alternatively, or in addition, disease-sparing could result from the cumulative action of colostral factors in supporting or enhancing immune functions. Enhancement of antibody responses to canine distemper vaccinations in BC-supplemented dogs supports this concept. Human literature also supports the concept of immune enhancement. In addition, as suggested by the human literature, BC may have little beneficial effect once an animal has clinical respiratory disease; therefore, the timing of BC supplementation may be critical to observe a desired effect.
2. Diarrhea and gut health
Diarrhea presents frequently in small animal practice. Three studies in dogs examined gut-related issues in the context of BC supplementation, and suggest that BC can favorably alter (increase the diversity of) gut microflora and increase fecal IgA immunoglobulins, as well as positively affect fecal consistency. As suggested in both veterinary and human studies of BC supplementation, reducing diarrhea, promoting a healthy gut and suppressing gut inflammation could be mediated by the direct antimicrobial and endotoxin-neutralizing effects of several BC components. In addition, the growth factors in BC may promote mucosal integrity and tissue repair.
3. Periodontal disease
Periodontal disease (PD) and associated tooth loss is the number one health problem seen by small animal veterinarians. Since the disease is multifactorial, involving complex interactions between host genetic factors, diet and oral microbes, it is difficult to develop a model in which to specifically assess prophylactic and therapeutic interventions such as BC supplementation.
Several factors in BC could counteract or delay periodontal disease. Since oral bacteria are thought to be the inciting factor in PD, the antimicrobial factors in BC such as lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and lysozyme could have a direct effect on the oral bacterial load. PD is an inflammatory process associated with tissue damage, and immune-modulating factors in BC reduce the pathogenic host response to infection. As well, the many growth factors in BC could, through activity on fibroblasts and epithelial cells, aid repairing damaged tissue. As this juncture, unpublished anecdotal observations tend to support the prophylactic/therapeutic use of BC for PD in dogs and cats.
4. Coat and hair quality
A small-scale unpublished study, relying on owner observations, suggests that BC supplementation may improve the hair coat in dogs. This could be consistent with the activity of epidermal and/or fibroblast growth factors in colostrum and warrants further investigation.
5. Deterioration in aging
A major factor of aging across mammalian species is the weakening and loss of skeletal muscle together with bone resorption. Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is an anabolic hormone responsible for muscle hypertrophy and regeneration. It decreases with age, but is in high concentration in BC. Although there are no published studies on the effects of IGF-1 in dogs or cats, in a recent study of 50- to 60-year-old exercising humans, it was found that both whey protein and BC promoted more lean muscle mass, but only the BC increased leg strength and reduced bone resorption. These results suggest that BC together with exercise may combat age-related degradation of the musculoskeleton in dogs as well.
Colostrum is being increasingly used for a variety of illness as well as for health enhancement in dogs and cats. And as we learn more about its benefits, this use will continue to grow.
Veterinarian Dr. John Ellis is a Professor of Veterinary Microbiology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatoon, where he teaches diagnostic virology. After graduating from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois, he received his PhD from Colorado State University. He is a diplomate with both the American College of Veterinary Pathologists and the American College of Veterinary Microbiologists.