It is essential to keep pigs fit and healthy and free from obesity. Liz Shankland explains how to keep them in tip top condition
One of the most common mistakes newcomers to pig keeping make is overfeeding their animals. It is not difficult to do, of course: as pigs appear to have never-ending appetites and will always tell you they want more — loudly and repeatedly.
What’s more, as a new owner, you will be so enchanted with them that there is a good chance you will give in. The calories in those extra treats — an extra half scoop of pellets here or there, or a pile of bananas or apples donated by the local greengrocer — soon add up. If you aren’t careful, you could be unwittingly giving them more food than is good for them — to the detriment of their health.
Overfeeding can happen whether you are raising weaners for meat, keeping breeding stock, or simply have a few pigs as pets. With meat pigs, you will see the result of your generosity in a disappointingly fat carcass at slaughter time; breeding animals can suffer fertility and farrowing problems; but pet pigs are likely to suffer more than most, and for longer.
Owners often don’t realise the serious damage they are doing to their pigs by constantly indulging them. Overweight pigs can suffer from health problems similar to those in humans, including premature arthritis, diabetes and heart and liver disease. As the extra weight puts additional pressure on limbs and joints, causing pain and loss of mobility, pigs can become depressed, uncomfortable and even aggressive. Other effects can be sight problems, due to fat rolls around the eyes, and loss of hearing, as a result of fat deposits in the ears.
Recognising that your pig is overweight can be tricky. Although pigs can be condition-scored on a scale of 1 to 5, as with sheep, it isn’t quite as straightforward or easy to assess. With a pig which has a healthy weight and is in good condition you will be able to feel the spine when you run your hand firmly along its back. If the spine can be felt really easily, even when only touched lightly, the pig is too thin, but if you can’t feel the spine, even when you apply firm pressure, it is obese. Other things to look out for include:
Large jowls. While chubby cheeks or fat around the neck may be acceptable in piglets, older pigs should not have them.
Flabby stomach. In some small pet pigs that are carrying too much weight, a low-slung stomach can make walking difficult, causing them to spread their legs, thus putting additional strain on joints and muscles. Low-slung stomachs also run the risk of scraping on the ground, causing injury and infection.
Fat rolls/folds over brow and eyes. A pig’s eyes should never be hidden. Lack of vision can lead to accidents and the pig may become nervous or appear obstinate.
Fat pads on the shoulders and folds or creases over the hind legs. When a pig develops what looks like body armour, it is a clear sign of obesity. Mobility can be affected and joint pain can occur.
Problems standing, walking, or lying down. Often caused by discomfort due to premature arthritis. The sheer effort of carrying additional weight makes it difficult to move normally.
Lowered or sagging perineal areas in boars. There should be no fat surrounding the sheath of the penis.
Giving the correct feed
Breeds like the Kunekune and the Vietnamese Pot-bellied pig (VPB) are the most popular choices for pets, but it is important to understand that they do not have the same nutritional requirements as larger commercial types which have been selectively bred to grow fast and produce lean meat. The Kunekune (which, incidentally, means ‘fat and round’ in Maori) is thought to have originally come from the tropical islands of Polynesia. It is a natural forager, just like the VPB and both can survive on rough grazing. Neither breed has a constitution which suits the high protein feeds sold by commercial feed companies, so it should come as no surprise that so many end up seriously fat and unhealthy when owners unwittingly follow the feeding guidelines on the sacks.
It is generally accepted that, along with grass or other forage, a lower protein diet should be fed — ideally no more than 12% protein. Very few manufacturers produce specialist feeds with pet pigs in mind and they can be much more expensive than conventional pig food. The tables below show the difference between a standard pig feed formulated for adult pigs and one created specifically for VPB, but suitable for Kunekunes and other small pet pigs. Both are from the same manufacturer.
As you will see from the footnote on the right hand side of the table, the manufacturer’s recommendation is to feed pet pigs according to weight, but how do you find out how heavy your pigs are if you don’t have the luxury of a pig weighing crate?
A cheap measuring device, available from many online smallholding supplies websites, is a weigh band. Just pass the tape under the ‘armpits’ of your pig — just behind the front legs — and over the shoulders and read the measurement in kilogrammes. It helps if the pig is eating when you do this. If you are good at maths, you could also try this traditional method: 1. Measure around the pig as before; 2. Multiply the measurement by itself; 3. Measure the length of your pig — from the top of the head, between the ears and down to the point where the tail sprouts from the body (not to the end of the tail); 4.
Take the result of step two and multiply by the length of the pig; 5.
Multiply by 69.3 for a weight in kilos, or divide by 400 for a weight in pounds.
Fit and active
Pigs in the wild would be actively foraging for food throughout the day, but domesticated pigs have a pretty easy life. If you want to trim a bit of weight off your pigs, as well as keeping a close eye on their daily diet — and carefully measuring out the amount you are giving them — you can encourage them to take a bit more exercise. Finding ways to get them moving will not only help them burn off calories, it will also keep them mentally stimulated.
Don’t feed in a trough — spread the food widely so that your pigs have to move around to get it;
Hide the food under rocks, fallen leaves or branches, or under piles of straw, so the pigs have to use their amazing sense of smell;
Buy or make a treat dispenser — like the kind used for horses or dogs. Fill it with pig nuts and let them toss it around the pen;
Try teaching your pigs some tricks. Pigs are hugely intelligent creatures and can be trained to do many things dogs can do.
Liz Shankland is the author of the Haynes Pig Manual. She teaches courses in pig husbandry and smallholding at Kate Humble’s rural skills school, www. humblebynature.com.
Keeping a check on your pigs’ weight is vital
The calories in those extra treats soon add up
It helps if the pig is eating when you measure
Try teaching your pigs some tricks