Preparing for the birthing season: Plasma

The role and importance of colostrum

Cria have no antibodies to disease at birth, and are therefore unable to fight infection. Without good quality colostrum to supply these antibodies, the cria is unlikely to survive challenges to its immune system.

Colostrum is the first milk a mother produces; it contains the antibodies and nutrients the cria needs to thrive, and the timing of the cria receiving it is critical.  A cria should consume 10-20% of its body weight (which equates to 700ml – 1400ml for a 7KG cria) in the first 24 hours of life, divided into two hourly feeds. By 24 hours, the cria cannot absorb further antibodies, in fact, just eight hours after birth, its capacity to absorb antibodies decreases dramatically.

In the majority of normal birthings, it is rare for the cria not to receive sufficient colostrum within 24 hours, as the cria should be standing within the first 30-60 minutes and nursing within 2-4 hours.

Signs of successful nursing include:

  • Feeding approximately every 2- 4 hours
  • The tail of the cria is raised or wagging whilst feeding
  • Evidence of milk around the mouth

Signs that a cria is not successfully nursing include:

  • Going to nurse more often than normal
  • No evidence of swallowing during nursing
  • No evidence of milk around the mouth
  • Lots of noise being made whilst trying to nurse

Failure to nurse can lead to lethargy and a failure to gain weight (they should be gaining 0.1 – 0.5kg a day).

When a cria fails to absorb the antibodies it needs in the first 24 hours of life, it is known as Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT).

What can be done if I suspect FPT?

If the cria is struggling in its first 12 hours, the cria and dam need to be checked to identify the cause:

  • Check mum has milk: if she does not appear to have milk, alternatives are available. Frozen alpaca colostrum is ideal, but failing this, goat or cow colostrum is an appropriate alternative.
  • Check cria for abnormalities: check the cria over, paying particular attention to the roof of the mouth; if you are concerned there may be any abnormalities, please contact your vet.

If the 24-hour window has passed and you are worried about FPT, an intravenous infusion of plasma is the best course of action; without this the cria has very little chance of survival.

A bag of blood being collected from a donor

What is plasma and how do I get it?

Plasma is part of the blood that contains antibodies, it is delivered directly into the cria’s blood stream by a vet and does not therefore have the time-limited absorption issue that colostrum does.

Plasma is prepared by taking blood from a healthy adult male or non-pregnant female (at least 60KG body weight) from your herd. Plasma for use on your holding must be generated from your animals.

This blood is then taken away to be separated, providing you with a bag of plasma that can be kept in the freezer ready for use in the upcoming birthing season.  A donor can only give enough blood for one bag of plasma at a time, hence you must have one donor per bag of plasma required.

These bags can be stored in the freezer for up to 2 years as long as they are kept frozen.

When to take plasma                       

When a cria requires plasma it is crucial they receive it without delay. We advise that plasma is prepared and frozen in advance of birthing season.

Plasma transfusion

If FPT is suspected, a plasma transfusion can be given. This is administered straight into the vein (sometimes the abdominal cavity) of the cria to provide antibodies it has not yet received. This is the only way of boosting immunity after the 24-hour window has passed, and saves lives if carried out in time.

A cria receiving a plasma transfusion

Other Situations in which plasma transfusion should be considered

In certain situations we can predict that a cria will not be able to absorb sufficient antibodies from the colostrum and a transfusion should be considered.

  • Low birth weight (<6KG)
  • Evidence of prematurity (curled ears, unerupted incisors, socks on feet)
  • Difficult birthing or caesarean
  • Congenital defects (e.g.cleft palate)
  • Maternal issues (first time mum, no bond between mum and baby, no milk, mastitis)

If you suspect FPT then please contact your vet immediately!

Costs of generating plasma

The fixed costs below include time to collect blood from the donor, the blood collection bags, transport of the bags to be spun down, the spinning down and separation of the plasma and transport of the bags of plasma back to your local practice for collection.

  • 1-5 bags of plasma: £100 per bag
  • 6-10 bags of plasma: £85 per bag
  • 11-15 bags of plasma: £80 per bag
  • More than 15 bags of plasma: £75 per bag

This service is location dependent. Please call your local Westpoint practice to find out if your location is eligible or if you would like advice.

Written by Laura Gibson BSc BVetMed MRCVS

Laura graduated from the RVC in 2014 having previously completed a degree in Bioveterinary Science at the University of Liverpool and joined the Chelmsford practice as a veterinary intern in August of that year. Laura is particularly interested in bovine fertility and surgery. Having completed an elective at university on camelids, she would also like to get involved in camelid medicine. In her spare time, Laura enjoys keeping fit; jogging, playing rugby and attempting to play tennis (a work in progress). When back home in Devon, she also likes to get out on the water when she can.