UF Study Shows Newborn Kittens Have Shot At Survival Thanks To Immune-boosting Treatment

December 28, 1999

GAINESVILLE—Orphaned or weak kittens, often deprived of mother’s milk in their first day of life, may have a better chance at survival thanks to a simple blood transfusion.

In animals and humans, mother’s milk produced in the first couple days after birth contains powerful disease-fighting antibodies. Kittens depend on the early milk, known as colostrum, for protection against serious infections.

Now antibodies found in the blood of normal adult cats can be transferred to kittens by injection, report researchers at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. The process could be used to save newborn kittens of endangered cat species, such as panthers.

“For years, veterinarians have been aware that foals and calves need to ingest colostrum, or first milk, at birth on the first day of life, but we have lagged behind in small animal medicine,” said Julie Levy, an assistant professor of small animal medicine at UF.

Unlike human babies, who acquire some antibodies via the placenta before birth, newborn kittens’ immune systems are undeveloped and the animals, like other species, rely on passive transfer of antibodies through colostrum.

“Systematic bacterial infection is the largest cause of death in kittens from 10 days to 4 weeks old,” Levy said. “We believe that at least some of these kittens were susceptible to infection due to their inability to acquire important antibodies from their mothers.”

Kittens whose mothers die, are very ill or have poor quality milk might not receive adequate colostrum; also vulnerable are very large litters that compete for milk while nursing, weak kittens that do not nurse well and kittens with blood group incompatibilities with the mother, Levy said.

Dr. Urs Giger, professor of medicine and chief of medical genetics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, said studies such as Levy’s are important in documenting how the newborn kitten’s immune system works.

“We need to learn a lot more about the immunology of newborn kittens,” he said.

Levy and Dr. Cynda Crawford, a postdoctoral associate in the college’s department of pathobiology, are using a $6,400 grant from the Morris Animal Trust to refine the immune-boosting treatment.

The UF research team studied 50 kittens divided into four treatment groups and proved that antibodies in the serum — a blood product – of adult cats could be transferred to kittens. The kittens studied included one group that nursed normally; one that did not nurse at all; one that did not nurse and received adult cat serum through abdominal injection; and one that did not nurse and received serum injections beneath the skin.

The researchers found that both serum administration methods were as effective as nursing. One of their goals is to establish a convenient dosage and to determine the best means to administer the serum efficiently and effectively.

“Since we now know that we can use antibodies found in the serum of normal adult cats to replace the ones missing from newborn kittens, we envision that, using widely available technology, most veterinary clinics would be able to deliver these lifesaving antibodies to at-risk kittens,” Levy said.

Once their role in the study is complete, the kittens are adopted out to private homes after spay/neuter surgery and complete vaccinations.

“We have many left who still need homes,” Levy said.