If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special pig residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of pigs at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided. Both large breed pigs and potbellied pigs are prone to obesity and a host of obesity-related health issues. Because of this, maintaining your pig residents at a healthy weight is an integral part of compassionate care. While pigs are all individuals who have their own preferences and needs, there are some general principles to consider regarding their physiology and nutritional needs. Unfortunately, when it comes to large breed pigs, most of the available nutrition information focuses on industry recommendations aimed at productivity and profitability, so it can be difficult to know exactly what diet is best for their long-term well-being. In this resource we’ll talk about the components of a healthy diet for mature pig residents (both large breed and potbellied pigs). Piglets have different nutritional needs which will be discussed in a separate resource.
Daily Food For Pigs
Pigs are foragers, and free-living pigs spend a good portion of their day traveling in search of food. When they are not foraging, they are typically resting. When foraging is not necessary (or possible), pigs are often less active and spend a larger portion of their day at rest than they otherwise would. Given their propensity for weight gain, finding ways to encourage activity, in addition to providing an appropriate diet, is important. Therefore, in addition to considering what to feed your pig residents, it’s also important to think about how to feed them.
A pig’s diet should consist of a complete diet pig food (we’re going to call these “pig pellets” throughout this resource, though they don’t necessarily have to be in a pelleted form), as well as forage and supplemental produce. Because of their love of eating and their propensity for weight gain, pig residents must have their portions managed to ensure they maintain a healthy weight.
Part of your residents’ diet should consist of measured amounts of pig pellets. Whether you are feeding large breed pigs or potbellied pigs, we do not recommend using commercial pig food designed for large breed pigs, as these are not designed with the pigs’ best interest and needs in mind and are instead formulated to encourage rapid growth and weight gain. While each manufacturer has a different formula, these pellets are typically higher in protein (and sometimes fat) and are significantly lower in fiber than what is ideal for sanctuary pig residents. Commercial large breed pig pellets are intended to be fed in large quantities, often on a free-choice basis. Because rapid growth and weight gain are the ultimate goal, manufacturers don’t want the pig to fill up on fiber, as they will end up eating less. In a compassionate care setting, where the individual’s well-being is the focus, it’s important to balance a restricted diet not only with adequate nutrient intake, but also with a feeling of being satiated, so a higher fiber diet is recommended.
When considering the best formula for sanctuary pig residents, a high-quality potbellied pig food or a custom recipe are your best options. These can be offered dry or soaked in water to soften.
If you are able to, having a custom food milled is a great option, especially if you care for large breed pigs, but this may not be practical for everyone. To ensure you are feeding the best food for your residents, we recommend working with a nutritionist and also getting your soil and water tested to determine what minerals, and in what quantities, should be added to the food. There are a few sanctuaries that use their own custom pellet with great success and that have shared their recipes with other sanctuaries in the past. Because these formulas have been designed specifically for the sanctuary’s residents, if you decide to use a custom recipe from another sanctuary or pig caregiver, we recommend working with your veterinarian or an experienced nutritionist to assess the nutritional content and adapt the recipe as needed to best meet the needs of your residents (based on soil and water testing, as well as the specific needs of your residents). As an added bonus, when using a custom recipe, you can talk to a nutritionist or your veterinarian about additions to support hoof health or address other concerns you may have.
Commercial Potbellied Pig Food
Unlike the commercial options available for large breed pigs, when it comes to potbellied pigs, there actually are multiple high-quality commercial pellets available designed with the individual’s well-being in mind. Given this fact, if the pigs in your care are potbellied pigs, using a high-quality commercial formula might make more sense than looking into a custom recipe, but if you care for a large number of residents, or have specific dietary concerns you are trying to address, you might opt for a custom pellet instead.
If you care for large breed pigs and find that using a custom pellet is not possible, using a high-quality potbellied pig pellet is a good option. Two brands that are often recommended by folks in the sanctuary community, both for large breed pigs and potbellied pigs, are Ross Mill Farm’s Champion Potbellied Pig Food and Mazuri Mini Pig Food (which offers different formulas based on the individual’s stage of life). There are other brands that offer comparable nutrition, so be sure to explore the options in your area.
Comparison Of Popular Pig Pellet Formulas
Below is a look at the protein, fat, and fiber content of a few popular potbellied pig formulas as well as a sample custom recipe that is used by multiple sanctuaries and was designed with a nutritionist as well as experienced veterinarians. While protein, fat, and fiber are not the only important nutrients in a pig’s diet, these are the levels that are often quite different from a commercial food designed for large breed pigs and can help you evaluate other potbellied pig food brands. Please keep in mind that recipes may change over time, so it’s good practice to look at the current nutritional analysis for any food you are considering.
|Mazuri Mature Maintenance||Min. 12%||Min. 4%||9-13%|
|Ross Mill Farm’s Champion Pig Food||14%||2%||13%|
|Custom Recipe||Min. 12%||Min. 2.5%||Max. 16%|
Suggestions For Pig Pellet Storage
In addition to feeding a high-quality food, you must be sure to store the food properly to ensure your residents reap all the nutritional benefits. Food will keep best if kept in a cool, dry, dark place. All food, including unopened bags, should be stored in tightly sealed metal cans or bins to prevent rodents from getting into food. If the recommended shelf life is not indicated on the food’s label, you can contact the manufacturer for this information, but be aware that the shelf life will be impacted by storage conditions. Storing food too long or in undesirable conditions can not only lead to rancid or moldy food, but can also cause food to become depleted of vitamins and minerals. You should never feed rancid or moldy food to pigs as it can make them very sick.
In addition to feeding quality pig pellets, pig residents should have access to forage. Supplementing your pig residents’ diet with grass hay and opportunities to forage can not only allow you to feed them smaller portions of pellets while keeping them satiated, it also honors who they are as foragers.
Pasture/ Woodland Vegetation
Whenever possible, it’s important to design outdoor spaces for your pig residents that offer foraging, grazing, and rooting opportunities, though we recognize that outdoor spaces and foraging opportunities will be impacted by your regional climate. While offering foraging opportunities is important because it is a natural pig behavior, providing healthy residents with ample foraging opportunities in a large, varied space has the added benefit of increasing activity levels. Activity, along with an appropriate diet, is key to preventing obesity. If possible, offering a mix of pasture and woods is ideal.
Grass offers a high-fiber addition to a pig resident’s diet which can help keep them satiated and promote a healthy digestive system. Pigs can tear up a pasture quickly, so it’s important to provide them with enough space so they don’t decimate the pasture and turn it into a mud pit. While pigs may avoid certain plants that are toxic to them, there’s also a chance that they will not, so be sure to remove those from their living spaces to eliminate the risk of ingestion. Depending on the make-up of your pasture’s vegetation, you may find that the plants your residents don’t like start to take over the pasture. Reseeding annually may be necessary.
The amount of forage available to your residents will affect the amount of pig pellets they require. Sanctuaries in climates where foraging opportunities vary greatly by season may find that they can reduce pellet portions when vegetation is plentiful- in some cases reducing the pellet portion size by 50%.
Like fresh grass, grass hay offers a good source of fiber. Some sanctuaries feed grass hay to their pig residents year round, while others offer it only during times when they do not have access to fresh grass or other vegetation. Be sure to offer a grass versus legume hay- legume hays are not a good choice because they are often lower in fiber and higher in calories, protein, and calcium than grass hay. Timothy or Bermuda grass hay is a better choice. Be sure to remove and replace hay if it becomes wet or soiled.
Supplementing your pig residents’ diet with fresh produce will not only keep things interesting for residents, by offering high-fiber and low-calorie veggies, you can help make them feel more satiated. Pigs can eat some starchy vegetables, but these should be fed in moderation. While they can eat fruit, it’s best to limit foods that are high in sugar, so fruit is best thought of as a treat offered in smaller quantities than something like leafy greens.
Foods to consider including:
- Leafy greens such as lettuces (not iceberg), Swiss chard, kale, spinach, or bok choy
- Summer squash varieties such as zucchini or yellow squash
- Winter squash varieties such as butternut or pumpkin (canned pumpkin puree is also a good option)
- Cooked sweet potatoes
- Snow peas
- Bell pepper
- Cauliflower and broccoli (some prefer cooked)
- Apple (seeds contain amygdalin. Generally, large quantities would be needed in order to cause serious toxicity, but the amount depends on the size and weight of the individual. Seeds can be removed if you are concerned- especially if you are caring for very small pigs.)
- Stone fruits- stone removed
- Cherries- pit removed
- Bananas (peel does not need to be removed)
Foods You Should Not Feed To Pigs
Things to avoid feeding to pigs (or that could cause issues for some pigs) include:
- Avocado skins and pits
- Brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) seeds and roots. Use caution when feeding the edible portions of brassicas- large amounts can cause stomach upset.
- Cassava is toxic in its raw state. While proper processing can make it safe for consumption, if this is not done properly or if the cassava has more toxin than what is typical (wild cultivars have higher cyanogenic content than sweet), the cassava could remain unsafe.
- Cherry pits and cherry tree leaves
- Chocolate- While concentrations of the toxin theobromine and caffeine are fairly low in many chocolate products, it can affect individuals differently. Toxins aside, chocolate is not a healthy addition to a pig’s diet and should be avoided.
- Citrus- Can cause gastric distress in larger amounts or if fed regularly.
- Corn stalks- These are high in nitrates and should be avoided.
- Kale roots and seeds.
- Nightshade leaves, vines, roots, and immature/ green fruits.
- Parsley- Contains furocoumarins which can cause photosensitization
- Celery- Contains furocoumarins which can cause photosensitization
- Parsnip tops and skins. Parsnip is safer when peeled and cooked.
- Potato- The skin, particularly green skin, and “eyes” contain glycoalkaloids and solanine toxins; leaves and vines can be toxic as well.
- Raw cashews- “Raw” cashews often found at grocery stores have already been steamed to make them safe to eat. Actual raw cashews contain the toxin urushiol and should not be fed to pig residents.
- Raw beans- Beans should be soaked for hours and boiled to destroy lectins.
- Rhubarb- There are a number of factors that affect levels of toxins in rhubarb; the leaves are particularly toxic, but it is better to avoid the whole plant as it contains oxalic acid. Cooking it may reduce toxin levels in the stems.
- Raw sweet potatoes- Can cause some digestive issues in some pigs.
- Un-Pitted stone fruits- Pits can lodge in the intestines and pits contain toxins.
- Unshelled walnuts- Shards of cracked shells can pierce the pharynx, so they are best avoided.
Supplements For Pigs
While complete nutrition pig pellets are formulated to have all the nutrients a pig needs, some sanctuaries have found that additional supplements help keep their residents healthy. We recommend working with your veterinarian or nutritionist to identify specific supplements to include in your residents’ diet and in what quantity. Haphazardly supplementing with certain nutrients can result in unintended consequences, including potential toxicity. Some supplements that sanctuaries and pig caregivers have found beneficial include:
- Biotin for hoof and skin health
- Glucosamine (or glucosamine/ chondroitin combination) to soothe joint inflammation and slow cartilage deterioration
- Vitamin E (sometimes in combination with selenium) for general health and to combat deficiency which can cause a host of health issues
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids (such as in the form of flaxseed meal, flaxseed oil, or hemp seed oil) for hoof and skin health as well as other health benefits
- Probiotics for gastrointestinal and immune system health
- Turmeric for its anti-inflammatory properties and other health benefits
Putting It All Together- How Much To Feed Pigs
The amount of food each individual pig should eat will vary based on their size, metabolism, and activity level, as well as the make-up of their diet. Keep in mind that when talking about diets for pigs, it is not just their pellet portion that needs to be managed. Consider all aspects of their diet when determining appropriate portion sizes (including how much vegetation they have access to in their outdoor space).
While the ideal food amount will vary between individuals, sanctuaries have had success feeding groups of pig residents together by providing ample space for everyone to spread out. However, some individuals may need to be separated for meals to ensure they get their full share without being bullied away from their food, or to prevent someone from eating more than their mealtime allowance. Be sure to monitor everyone’s weight and body condition, as well as feeding time social dynamics when determining the best feeding arrangements.
Sample Large Breed Pig Diets
To help give you a starting point, we gathered examples of daily meal plans from experienced sanctuaries and pig caregivers. The amounts below reflect the amount of food fed per day- not per meal.
8 cups Custom Pig Pellets and 3 cups fresh produce plus supplements and unlimited grass hay
8-16 cups Ross Mill Farm’s Champion Potbellied Pig Food (amount depends on whether or not pigs have access to pasture) plus approximately 8 cups high-fiber, low-calorie produce and supplements. During the summer months, produce portions are reduced.
4-16 cups Custom Pig Pellets (within this wide range the average amount for most residents is 8 cups) plus 1 cup raw hulled sunflower seeds (for healthy fats for hoof health) and supplements. When pasture is not available, each resident gets 2 flakes of grass hay. Fresh produce is provided 1-2 times weekly.
Sample Potbellied Pig Diets
If you search for feeding recommendations for potbellied pigs, you may think that unlike large breed pigs, there is a set amount that should be fed to potbellies (many sources suggest 1-2% of their ideal body weight, but some recommend as high as 3%). In fact, some food manufacturers recommend a specific pellet amount based on the individual’s size. While this may be a good starting point, just like with large breed pigs, the appropriate amount of food for each individual will depend on not just their size, but also their activity level, metabolism, and overall health, as well as the make-up of their diet.
Here are some examples of a typical diet for potbellied pigs (per day, not per meal):
1-2 cups Ross Mill Farm’s Champion Potbellied Pig Food plus fresh produce and supplements. Residents get grass hay when pasture is not available.
1.5- 2 cups Mazuri Mini Pig Food plus 2 heads romaine lettuce and 2 cups produce. Unlimited timothy hay.
⅔- 2 cups Ross Mill Farm’s Champion Potbellied Pig Food plus 2 cups lower calorie veggies, tofu, and supplements.
When considering what to feed pigs out of or off of, be sure to think about cleanliness and foot health. Some sanctuaries that used metal troughs in the past found that these posed a safety issue as residents moved them around and banged them up. Heavy-duty rubber bowls are a safer option, though clean-up may be a bit tedious if you care for a large number of pigs. Some sanctuaries have made their own feeding troughs or feeding platforms instead. Just avoid anything with sharp or abrasive edges that could result in injury and make sure the materials can safely withstand the feeding process.
If feeding out of bowls, be sure to offer at least one bowl per residents, and if you are using a trough or platform, determine how many pigs can comfortably eat from each and offer enough to accommodate everyone. To prevent anyone from getting pushed away from food, we recommend spreading food out and offering a few additional feeding stations (think musical chairs but with a couple extra chairs so no one ever loses).
Water For Pigs
Like every sanctuary resident, pigs require a clean, freely-accessible water supply. However, keeping pig resident waters clean and full can be a bit more challenging than it is for other residents. Pigs are notorious for getting into water tubs if it’s warm out, and even if that’s not physically possible, it only takes one dunk of a muddy resident’s snout to turn sparkling clean water into a murky mess. Another challenge is that pigs may use that strong nose of theirs to move and flip water bowls or tubs, which is both messy and can also leave them without drinking water. It’s important to keep all this in mind when figuring out how to best provide water to your pig residents.
Pigs can go through a lot of water, so you’ll either need a plan to regularly refill their water throughout the day, or you’ll need a water source that refills automatically. And if you are in an area where water sources are likely to freeze, you’ll need to account for this as well.
If you are able to install automatic water units, this can be a good way to ensure constant access to fresh drinking water. However, some units hold up better with pigs than others. Pigs are strong and can easily bend or break flimsy water units, so it’s best to go with something heavy-duty (one favorite is Nelson brand). Farm Sanctuary recommends mounting automatic water units to a concrete pad.
Another benefit of an automatic waterer is that there are models available that have enclosed heat sources and thermostats that can ensure water doesn’t freeze over in cold weather. If you go this route, be sure to keep fire safety in mind. Pigs absolutely must not have access to the heating element or any wires. Be aware that some designs are such that when the unit is opened for cleaning, the heat element becomes exposed. Some styles may also be easily opened by a curious pig resident.
Another option for a constant source of fresh water is to use a water tub with a float hooked up to a hose. As the water level drops, the float valve releases more water from the hose, keeping the tub full at all times. This set-up might work better for some of your other large mammalian residents than it does for pigs since there is a good chance your pig residents will decide to hop right in when the weather gets warm, and you will likely have to protect the float from being knocked out of place (resulting in the tub overflowing) or knocked off the tub entirely (resulting in the hose continually flowing, soaking the ground, but not actually filling the tub). The tub and float will need to remain fairly level to prevent overflowing. Building a platform and/ or frame to keep the tub level and securely in place may be beneficial (but make sure you can still easily empty and clean it!). Alternatively, you can use a tub without a float and plan to fill it regularly throughout the day.
Drinker Water Tub
One challenge with water tubs for pigs is that in order for residents to comfortably access the water, the tub must be rather shallow compared to what you might offer to other large mammals. Offering a water tub with a “drinker” unit allows you to use a much larger tub (and therefore, provide more water) while still ensuring your residents can comfortably drink. Instead of drinking from the top of the tub, residents drink from a recessed space in the front of the unit, and the remainder to the tub acts as a holding tank for fresh water. A built-in float keeps this area filled with accessible drinking water, and you can even build a wooden cover to help keep the water in the tub clean (as shown above). The drinker can be cleaned and flushed out with a powerful hose as it becomes dirty. One challenge with this type of water unit is that it must be on a level surface or the water will overflow the drinker. Building a base to place it on can help keep it level.
Bowls And Buckets
If you only need to provide water to one or two residents, a bucket or large rubber bowl may suffice, so long as you are able to keep it filled at all times. Much like when providing a water tub, bowls and buckets are likely to be spilled or flipped by pig residents. Building a wooden frame to secure the bowl or bucket in place can help prevent this from happening.
Special Food Recommendations For Older Pigs
Older pigs can sometimes lose, break, or wear down some or many of their permanent teeth through the course of their long lives. As a result, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from standard food. Certain dry food pellet mixes might be especially difficult for an older pig with worn teeth to eat. Although pigs tend to accumulate more weight throughout their lives, it’s important to monitor an older pig’s weight as they age to ensure that they aren’t becoming malnourished. If necessary, you can soften their food by soaking pellets in water to create an oatmeal-like consistency and offer other soft foods such as cooked fruits and veggies or purées. Dental issues are common as pigs age, so if you see that someone is losing weight, dropping their food as they chew, or has a foul-odor coming from their mouth, be sure to consult with your veterinarian. Dental disease can cause other health issues in addition to weight loss, so be sure to consider their dental health!
Dental issues are not the only thing that could lead to weight loss in an older pig resident. If a resident is losing weight and dental issues have been ruled out, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about potential causes, including various diseases. They can help recommend diagnostic tests to confirm or rule out potential causes. In addition to determining the cause of their weight loss, you can also discuss various diet changes with your veterinarian or a nutritionist. Older residents who are having trouble maintaining a healthy weight or generally are not thriving may require larger and/ or more frequent meals, a higher protein diet, or additional supplementation. If you suspect a vitamin or mineral imbalance, talk to your veterinarian about appropriate supplementation which may come in the form of an oral or injectable vitamin and/ or mineral formula, or the addition of certain vitamin or mineral-rich foods such as algae oil, kelp, or black oil sunflower seeds. If an older pig is struggling with constipation, offering soaked pellets and lots of water-dense fresh foods can be helpful. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian if constipation is an ongoing issue.
If an older pig’s senses begin to weaken, they may become more skittish or less willing to eat than usual (especially in a group setting), so be very patient with them and give them their own safe, quiet space to eat if needed. If someone prefers eating while lying down, providing a wide, shallow dish will make this an easier process.
While some pigs may struggle with weight loss as they age, others may struggle with obesity. An individual who is less active while still eating the same portions as they used to may become overweight. You may have to adjust their portion size, especially if the individual is more sedentary due to arthritis or other health challenges, and depending on their current diet, you may want to look into a different food formulation.
Potbellied Pig Husbandry And Nutrition | Valerie V. Tynes, DVM (Non-Compassionate Source)
Healthy Foods | American Mini Pig Association (Non-Compassionate Source)
Supplements For Pigs | American Mini Pig Association (Non-Compassionate Source)