Choline was not considered a vitamin until more recently because it is not typically essential in the diet (most animals can synthesize it for themselves).  In recent years, however, choline deficiencies have appeared in swine, thus leading researchers to conclude that this nutrient is a little more critical than they thought.

The main role of choline is to build and maintain the structure of cells.  Because of this purpose, choline is essential for proper growth and embryonic development.

Another major function of choline is nervous system health.  Not only does choline act as a structural component of nerve tissues, it assists in the transmission of nerve impulses, as well.

Finally, choline is also needed to synthesize proteins and metabolize fat.

Natural Sources

All farm animals can synthesize their own choline, but they can also eat it in a wide range of forms.  Choline is generally found in association with fat.  Therefore oilseeds and animal proteins typically contain this nutrient.  However, the choline in plants is not as readily available as that in animal sources, such as eggs, meat meal, liver meal, and fish meal.  Yeast is another feed high in choline.

Causes of Deficiency


Choline deficiencies are extremely uncommon in either pets or livestock and typically signal a diet that is unbalanced in some way.  For example, a folic acid or vitamin B12 deficiency can cause a choline deficiency, as can diets that are low in protein or high in fat.

A few specific substances linked to choline deficiency are antibiotics, growth hormones, and possibly soybean meal (not lecithin).

Age can also reduce an animal’s ability to process choline well.

Symptoms of Deficiency

  • Extreme weakness.
  • Coarse skin and hair.
  • Muscle defects.
  • Bowed legs in quail.
  • Puffy hock joints.
  • Weak joints in swine.
  • Slipped tendons in poultry.
  • Potbelly in swine.
  • Reduced feed intake and efficiency.
  • Weight loss.
  • Vomiting.
  • Labored breathing.
  • Pinpoint-sized hemorrhages.
  • Anemia.
  • Lack of coordination.
  • Inability to stand.
  • Reduced egg production.
  • Low conception rates.
  • Reduced milk production.
  • Mastitis.
  • Ketosis.
  • Reduced growth.
  • Death.

Symptoms of Toxicity

Most animals appear to have a high threshold of tolerance for supplemental choline, although high doses may cause anemia in dogs.  A long-term excess in livestock may lead to the following symptoms:

  • Reduced feed efficiency.
  • Reduced growth.

Also, pets being supplemented with choline to treat cognitive disorders may show a unique set of symptoms if the dose is too high.  These side effects are fairly rare.  Taking the dog or cat off of choline for a few days and then resuming supplementation at a lower dose should correct the problem.  The symptoms include:

  • Frenzied behavior.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Aggression.
  • Agitation.
  • Nervousness.
  • Increased yowling in cats.
  • Muscle twitching.

Medicinal Uses

Now that the importance of choline has been recognized, researchers are hunting for new uses for this nutrient.

In poultry, choline may increase feed efficiency and prevent leg problems.

Choline may prevent leg problems in swine, as well.  Another use of choline in swine is to increase litter sizes and the productive lifetime of breeding sows.

Early research is indicating a number of possible benefits of choline supplementation in dairy cows.  For example, choline may reduce the risk of mastitis and metabolic problems.  It may also help maximize milk production, as well as increase the butterfat content of the milk.

In finishing beef cattle, choline may increase weight gains.

Cats and dogs are sometimes supplemented with choline to treat epilepsy, and it may also prevent fatty liver syndrome.  One application where this nutrient shows particular promise is in easing the symptoms of age-related problems, particularly arthritis and cognitive disorder.

Content regarding medical conditions and treatment is provided for general information purposes only, and is not to be construed as legal, medical, or professional advice.  Please consult your veterinarian for advice regarding your specific animal’s needs.

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