Early Weaning Impacts Gut Enzyme in Piglets, Study Finds

May 04, 2010 - News Release

University of Guelph researchers have uncovered one of the reasons piglets often struggle with illness and sometimes die when they are weaned from their mothers.

According to the new study, published recently in The Journal of Nutrition, a gut enzyme involved in digesting phosphate and fighting off harmful bacteria is significantly compromised during the early-weaning process.

“We found that the early weaning of piglets reduced the level and performance of alkaline phosphatase in the gut, which can lead to decreased growth development and illness,” said Dale Lackeyram, a PhD student who worked on the study with animal and poultry science professor Ming Fan. “These study results have benefits for the pork industry. Early weaning is critical for farmers when it comes to maximizing production, but it’s also the time when a majority of piglets die or their quality of health suffers.”

This finding can also have implications for humans when it comes to understanding what happens during the weaning process because the digestive system of pigs and humans are similar, Lackeyram added.

The researchers weaned piglets from their mothers at 10 days old and placed them on a corn-and-soybean meal-based weaning diet for 12 days, similar to standard swine industry early-weaning practices. A second group of piglets was allowed to continue suckling during the 12-day study.

Researchers then examined intestinal tissue from the two groups and found the piglets that were switched over from sow’s milk to solids had reduced levels of alkaline phosphatase and reduced function in the remaining enzymes.

Reducing the effectiveness of alkaline phosphatase has two major implications for a weaned animal, said Lackeyram.

“From a nutritional standpoint, this enzyme plays a key role in making phosphorus available for bone growth and development,” he said. “Currently, piglets are given supplements in their feed to make phosphorus more digestible, but this study shows that the animals don’t express high enough levels of the enzyme needed to digest and make nutritional use of it.”

Alkaline phosphatase is also part of the body’s natural defence system, he says.

“This enzyme is capable of acting on the toxic components of bacterial cells such as E. coli. The impact of weaning on this enzyme is likely one of the contributing reasons why piglets often get sick, suffer from chronic bacterial-induced diarrhea and have trouble gaining weight when switched over to solids.”

Based on this finding, Lackeyram suggests the supplementation of encapsulated alkaline phosphatase may provide a novel way of defending against bacteria and enhancing phosphorus nutrition during the weaning transition.

“Because this enzyme plays a similar role in humans and pigs, this study provides a basis to further investigate the role of supplementing alkaline phosphatase during periods of digestive illness.”

Dale Lackeyram
519-824-4120, Ext. 52846

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or l.hunt@exec.uoguelph.ca, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982 or d.healey@exec.uoguelph.ca.

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