Sports Supplements to Aid Parturition and Reduce Perinatal Mortality

By Theo van Kempen Provimi RIC, and North Carolina State University. Published in the University of Nottingham University Press. Perinatal mortality, which includes stillbirths and neonatal mortality in the first days after parturition, is a serious challenge for the swine industry, the recent Nottingham Feed Conference heard. It is common that 1 in 5 piglets do not survive this period.
calendar icon 21 December 2007
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Approximately half this loss is due to stillbirths and the other half due to neonatal mortality. Besides being a considerable economic loss, this also represents a serious welfare problem.

Perinatal mortality has been extensively studied, with environmental and metabolic challenges for the piglets as the major focus. The practical impact of these studies, however, have been rather limited. Perinatal mortality has not decreased proportionally in the last 50 years. Clearly, this is not an objective evaluation as litter size has increased rastically during this same period which complicates the management of perinatal mortality. Nevertheless, the fact remains that much can be gained from a better understanding and management of perinatal mortality.

Our evaluation of the problem underlying perinatal mortality suggests that it is mainly driven by the dam, not by the piglets. Based on published literature and our own observations, we worked on the hypothesis that dystocia (abnormally long and difficult birth) is at the basis of a large portion of perinatal mortality.

Sows in modern housing systems are not habituated to strenuous exercise as they are typically in stalls with limited freedom to move. Parturition, or labour, however, is a serious physical challenge for the sow, both in intensity and duration. Typically parturition lasts 6 hours but in extreme cases it can last well over a day. The animals are not prepared for such an extended period of intensive labour and become exhausted. At the point of exhaustion, the sow will interrupt the process of labour, independent of where foetuses are in the birth process.

During the birth process the frail umbilical cord has a high chance of being squeezed or worse, ruptured. Either case leads to an interruption in blood flow to the foetus and the consequence is a lack of oxygen supply and accumulation of CO2 and lactic acid with a concomitant decrease in blood pH. Most piglets are born quick enough and this interruption in blood flow does not jeopardize health. However, if the birth process of a foetus has been initiated and the mother interrupts labour due to fatigue, the foetus may experience a prolonged period of respiratory failure. Interruptions of respiration of less than 2 minutes typically are well tolerated. Interruptions of more than 5 minutes result in stillbirths. Intermediate interruptions result in piglets that are born with metabolic damage (acidosis). These piglets will require additional time to recover from the birth process, making them very vulnerable to hypothermia and crushing by the sow. These piglets will also have more difficulty finding the teats or competing at the udder. These piglets are thus much more likely to die during the first days after birth.

Periparturient fatigue is also common in humans. Dystocia during human labour is well recognized as a problem but is equally not treated in practice (although women are advised to exercise prior to parturition). Similarly, during intense exercise athletes suffer from fatigue. To combat this problem, a large industry has developed that supplies ‘sports drinks’. These products typically contain easily digestible energy sources, minerals, and vitamins critical during intense exercise. Scientific studies have shown that these supplements can delay the onset of fatigue and speed up the recovery from fatigue. To date, there has been no scientific evaluation of such supplements for helping mammals in labour.

Metabolic demands

The objective of our work was to develop a sports supplement specifically to help during the process of labour. For this purpose, the metabolic demands of labour were studied and a tailored energy, mineral, vitamin, and anti-oxidant blend was developed named ParturAid®. For swine, this blend is delivered to the animal as an oral paste.

Concept testing of this product showed that indeed as the birth process proceeded, more piglets were born with low blood pH, in line with our working hypothesis. Providing ParturAid to the sows at the start of parturition improved blood pH of the piglets at birth and reduced the time interval between the birth of piglets for those born towards the end of parturition. When tested in sows with minimum intervention, ParturAid prevented delays in labour and also numerically reduced both stillbirths and neonatal piglet mortality.

Subsequent field trials with over 800 sows across 8 locations showed that, on average, ParturAid reduced stillbirths by 0.44 pigs and neonatal mortality by 0.26 pigs per litter giving a total increase in litter size of 0.70 pigs. This effect was greater in farms with problems (>2 stillbirths and neonatal mortality combined) where ParturAid reduced this mortality by nearly 50%. Sows that received ParturAid also consumed more feed postpartum and farmers observed that piglets were more vital and that sows had less health complications. It is expected that these benefits of ParturAid will increase with time, as farmers will become better at predicting the onset of labour and thus able to better implement the product at the appropriate time.

In conclusion, fatigue during parturition is a major contributor to perinatal mortality. By providing sports supplements such as ParturAid to sows pre-partum, fatigue problems can be lessened. This results in speedier recovery and better feed intake post-partum and in up to 50% lower stillbirths and lower neonatal mortality.

September 2007

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