Abstract Background Bovine surfactants are known to be clinically equivalent but it is unclear if porcine or bovine surfactants at their licensed dose should be preferred to treat respiratory distress syndrome in preterm neonates. Methods We performed a comprehensive review of biochemical and pharmacological features of surfactants to understand the biological plausibility of any clinical effect. We then performed a pragmatic meta-analysis comparing internationally marketed porcine and bovine surfactants for mortality and respiratory outcomes. Search for randomised controlled trials with no language/year restrictions and excluding “grey” literature, unpublished or non-peer reviewed reports was conducted, following Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines and the most recent methodological recommendations. Results Sixteen articles were included in the review and 14 in the meta-analysis (1491 neonates). 200 mg/kg poractant-α (a porcine surfactant) was associated with lower BPD/mortality (OR 0.632[95%CI:0.494, 0.809];p < 0.001),BPD (OR 0.688[95%CI:0.512, 0.925];p = 0.013), retreatment (OR 0.313[95%CI:0.187, 0.522];p < 0.0001), airleaks (OR 0.505[95%CI:0.308, 0.827];p = 0.006) and lung haemorrhage (OR 0.624[95%CI:0.388, 1];p = 0.051). Gestational age is associated with effect size for BPD (coefficient: 0.308 [95%CI:0.063, 0.554];p = 0.014) and surfactant retreatment (coefficient: -0.311 [95%CI:-0.595, − 0.028];p = 0.031). Conclusion 200 mg/kg poractant-α is associated with better respiratory outcomes compared to bovine surfactants at their licensed dose. The effect of poractant-α on BPD and surfactant retreatment is greater at lowest and highest gestational ages, respectively. Trial registration PROSPERO n.42017075251.