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Recognizing Sick Pigs Requires Skill

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There are few pig production skills that are as fundamental as the ability to recognize a sick, injured or disadvantaged pig so that action can be taken to treat it, euthanize it or remove it from the group. Yet it’s clear from my experience visiting many farms that this skill is not universal and that differences in the ability of stockpersons to recognize abnormality can lead to variations in performance and pig welfare. So what are the key aspects of this skill and how can stockpersons be more effective at identifying pigs that need attention?

First, in order to recognize abnormality, one must fully understand the normal, healthy animal and how it looks, moves, behaves and sounds. Second, it is important to use a range of observational and behavioural skills, not just rely on a few major signs. All the senses including hearing, touch and smell should be used where appropriate. This will lead to quicker and more accurate identification of a problem. Third, stockpersons should follow a detailed routine that involves close inspection of each pig at least once a day.

In most cases this should involve entering the pen and interacting with pigs so that their response can be observed. This is especially important because it allows rapid identification of pigs that are slow to respond, lethargic or lame. Finally, stockpersons must be constantly vigilant for any signs of abnormality as they go about their daily work, not just during routine inspections.

Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal.


Any deviations from normal appearance and behaviour should be identified when carrying out a health check. Pigs should be alert and move freely around the pen, exhibit inquisitive behaviour, show no signs of lameness, move in a co-ordinated manner and stand with their head up.

If they are listless and unresponsive, or show signs of lameness, stiffness or lack of coordination, they will need attention. The skin should be undamaged, shiny and pink, which perhaps sounds obvious, but small changes to skin condition can indicate a problem. For example, abrasions, cuts or wounds could be the result of sharp edges on equipment, fighting with other pigs or pigs rubbing due to mange infestation. If the skin is dull or scaly, or abnormally hairy, it indicates a problem.

Body condition is also a good general health indicator, especially in nursery and grow-finish pigs. A loss of condition may often first be seen as “pinching” of the stomach due to reduced feed intake and then pigs start to lose body condition which is most easily seen along the pig’s back.

In addition to these general observations, each section of the unit will have specific aspects of health that require checking. For sows and gilts, observation of the vulva not only helps in recognizing animals that are on heat but will also identify any discharges that could indicate impending return to service or an infection in the reproductive tract.

In breeding animals the most common health problem is foot and leg damage and infections, so it is vital to observe all sows and gilts standing up and moving in their pen or stall. Look for signs of swelling or the presence of abscesses because if these are treated early, the chances of recovery are very high. Unfortunately, far too many sows are culled for lameness as a result of late identification of infection or injury.


Around the time of farrowing, stockpersons must be vigilant for the slightest sign of any impending health problems, starting from the time sows enter the crate. At that time, it is worthwhile carrying out a physical check of legs, udder and general health so that if treatment is necessary, it can be done well before farrowing. A more specific check of the udder should be done 48 and 24 hours before farrowing, by observing and feeling all the glands carefully. Hardness, swelling, redness or high temperature may indicate the onset of mastitis or agalactia, which will require treatment.

Immediately after farrowing, check for signs of a thick white or yellow vaginal discharge that could indicate a uterine infection and also continue to check the udder. As udder problems are often associated with constipation, monitor the condition of the feces and if they are too dry and hard provide some high-fibre material such as bran. Sows with a sore udder will often lie on their belly to prevent suckling, while the piglets show signs of agitation and shortage of milk.

One of the most important indicators of health of the sow at farrowing is appetite and feed refusal or any reduction in feed intake requires further investigation.

In nursery, growing and finishing pigs, respiratory symptoms become more important so stockpersons should look for signs of laboured breathing, coughing or sneezing, that could indicate disease. The other major area to consider is the condition of the feces and whether there is scouring, abnormal colour of even the presence of blood.

Close observation for any lameness is also critical. Finally, abnormal behaviours such as tail biting or excessive fighting should be closely monitored and action taken if a problem is identified.

Rapid identification of health problems and appropriate treatment will not only improve overall performance, especially mortality, but will also reduce treatment costs, improve welfare and save the stockperson’s time. In a future article, I will look at how to deal with sick injured and disadvantaged pigs once they have been identified.

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