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How to Conduct A Pig Health Examination

Two content young pigs rest in straw indoors.
Ophelia And Athena are happy to get their checkups!

Updated April 10, 2020

Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of pigs with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a pig is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy pig look and feel like, but familiarizing a pig with human handling might help them stay more calm in stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.

*An Exam Every Six to Eight Weeks Means Daily Observations!

Our recommendation to conduct routine health examinations every six to eight weeks must be done in conjunction with daily observations.  Caregivers should be trained to observe animals both for behaviors that are abnormal for the species and also behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species and their warning signs.  Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress into more serious situations.

Residents With Challenging Backgrounds

Close daily observation can be difficult with certain individuals or groups who come from challenging backgrounds. They may be more likely to hide signs of illness or injury, or may not allow you to come close enough to them to thoroughly assess their well being on a regular basis. Challenging backgrounds may include individuals who are not socialized, have lived feral, or were abused or malnourished. If you care for individuals who came from a challenging background, it is imperative to make time to foster a bond of trust so careful observation is possible. A monthly health exam is recommended for these individuals until they exhibit signs that they feel safe and you are confident that close daily observation is possible.

New Resident? Conduct An Intake Examination!

If you are conducting an initial health examination on a new resident, check out our intake examination resource to learn about what you should check for and document!

Problem Signals

Due to their large size, pigs require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that you may not notice through a cursory observation. By paying regular attention to the herd, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss. A sick, injured, or otherwise distressed pig may:

  • Hide more often than they used to
  • Change their daily schedule or general behavior
  • Have labored breathing, coughing, sneezing, drooling, vomiting, or a constantly open mouth
  • Be grinding their teeth
  • Be immobile, inactive or unresponsive to your approach
  • Be sitting far more often than usual
  • Avoid or be rejected by the rest of the herd
  • Have a limp in their step or a limp tail
  • Have unusual or abnormal droppings including diarrhea, blood in stool, or worms
  • Have skin issues such as red patches, scabs, or lesions
  • Have runny eyes or nasal discharge
  • Be less hungry or thirsty, or drink water excessively
  • Have an odd posture like hunching or keeping their hind legs tucked under their body
  • Have an abnormally strong odor
  • Have an internal body temperature out of the range of 101.6-103.6 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Have a head tilt or body tremors
  • Have pale gums

Conducting The Exam

Ask An Expert

Prior to regularly conducting pig health examinations, you should have a veterinarian or compassionate care expert give you hands-on training in order to be the best pig health advocate possible. Being trained to rapidly distinguish healthy conditions from abnormalities can be crucial in early health problem detection and effective treatment!

In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the pig. Generally, the examination should begin at their head, working your way back and down. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case a veterinarian needs the pig’s history.

Safety First!

Pigs can become ill with disease that is highly transmissible to humans. It’s very important to wear gloves when conducting health examinations!

It can be easier to conduct the examination after a pig has eaten as they tend to be less fussy. Before stepping into their living space, you should take note of the pig’s behavior. Are they acting differently than they usually do? How are they getting along with fellow herdmates? These clues can say a lot about a pig’s health.

If necessary, you may have to have a second caregiver on hand to help manage the health examination. Once you have the pig calm and ready, conduct the following observations:

When In Doubt...

Unless you are a qualified veterinarian or have been trained to handle specific conditions, The Open Sanctuary Project strongly advocates that you promptly report any health concerns you find during the course of an exam to your veterinarian or care expert. Unless they’re in a life-threatening situation, you should be your resident’s advocate, not their doctor.

Check their weight and body condition

Maintaining a healthy weight is always a challenge in pigs, and physically weighing them may not be feasible depending on your set-up, but it’s still important to find a way to keep track of a pig’s weight and body condition. Estimating a pig’s weight takes quite a bit of practice and experience.  We recommend you work with your vet to estimate your pigs’ weights if weighing them is not an option.  In addition to actual or estimated weights, pay close attention to their body condition.  You should be able to feel their spine but it should not be prominent.  Shoulder blades and ribs also should not be prominent.  Pigs should not have fat rolls impeding their vision or their ability to walk with ease.  If the pig has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or other parasites. If the pig is mature and has gained a large amount weight in a short time, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them, especially with treats and snacks. Obesity-related complications can regularly lead to dangerous conditions and death in pigs

Check their head

How are they holding their head? It’s best if they’re holding it up on their own volition. If they’re shaking, hunching, tilting, or tucking their head, this can be a sign of illness or injury

Check their eyes

The pig should have bright, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, constantly blinking, or crusty eyes indicates likely illness or injury, including Pink Eye, which is highly contagious and requires immediate attention. Their pupils should be about the same size and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal).

Check their ears

Their ears can have a modest amount of earwax or debris in them, but should be clear of any ear mites. Sticky, yellow, or odorous earwax needs addressing. You can use a gauze pad to clear out excess earwax and to collect a sample to check for ear mites. Generally, their ears should not be drooping unless it’s standard to the individual pig. Ears should not feel swollen, fluid filled, or significantly warmer than the rest of the pig’s body. Ensure that the area behind their ears is free of skin cancer.

Check their snout

The pig’s snout should be free of any discharge, fluid, crustiness, or blood, and should be a little cooler than the rest of their body and moist. Check their snout for any cuts or wounds, which can commonly happen with curious pigs!

Check their mouth

You shouldn’t be able to hear a pig breathe in ideal circumstances. Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, sneezy, whistling, or squeaky. Generally, they should have between 15-30 breaths per minute. A breathing-impaired pig might have lungworms, a serious and potentially deadly infection in their respiratory system. They should not have a wet or dry cough or strong odor coming from their mouth. Many of these symptoms could be a result of pneumonia which pigs are highly susceptible to. Abnormalities should be immediately reported to your veterinarian. Gums should be pink and moist.  Male pigs need to have their lower tusks regularly trimmed in order to keep themselves and other residents safe. The part of the tusks that need to be trimmed down do not have nerve endings in them, but it is a process that requires a compassionate pig expert or veterinarian to teach you how to safely perform. If they’re reluctant to eat, they might have a problem with one or more of their tusks or teeth that needs to be managed.

Check their abdomen

A pig’s abdomen should not be distended or tight, and you shouldn’t be able to feel any firm structures. Their nipples should not be hot, swollen, or discolored.  When checking male pigs, check their prepuce for any discharge or scabbing.  Gently press on the area behind the prepuce- if this causes them to urinate, they may be holding urine which could be a sign of diverticulitis.

Check their skin

Check around the pig’s entire body to ensure healthy skin. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the individual’s body, not just those included in this list.  This thorough section of the exam is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed.  Their skin should not have lice, itchiness, mites, nits, lumps, cuts, cysts, bruises, gangrene, larvae, maggots, dry patches, blisters, or pressure sores. Check their shoulder, back, and abdomen for signs of skin cancer. Ensure they do not have any patchy hair loss.

Check their joints

It’s important to check the pig’s joints in their legs and shoulders for swelling or tenderness. They should not be warmer than the rest of their body. Ensure that the pig doesn’t have pain when they move their joints. There should be no cracking or crunching sounds when they move, and they shouldn’t be avoiding putting weight on any of their joints in particular. Check their legs for pressure sores. Joint inflammation could be a sign of arthritis, which is prevalent in pigs as they get older.

Check their hooves and feet

Ensure that the pig’s hooves and dewclaws are a reasonable length and free of cracks, heat, swelling, debris, discharge, or abscesses. Any of these symptoms can cause lameness, discomfort, and could possibly contribute to infections and further damage. They should be able to put their full weight on their feet and they shouldn’t limp. If they are limping, check their hoof bottoms for uncomfortable debris. If their hooves are overgrown, schedule a trimming as soon as you can. Generally, pigs should have their hooves trimmed about once every six to eight weeks, though pigs with chronic foot issues may need to be trimmed more often.

Check their rear end

The pig’s butt should be relatively clean. It shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty or bloody. Ensure that it doesn’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, or other parasites. Make sure that it isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you should consult with a veterinarian. Females should have their vulva checked.  Check for any discharge (which is only normal for unspayed females while they are in heat) as that can be a signs of a serious issue such as an infection or cancer.  Make sure the tissue looks healthy- scabbing could be a sign of skin cancer.

Check their poop

It’s important to monitor a pig’s poop and recognize what healthy pig droppings look like. If it’s poorly formed, watery, strong smelling, or bloody, it could be a sign of diarrhea, parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. If you’re particularly concerned by a dropping, you can bring it into your veterinarian for analysis, though you should also consider fecal testing healthy-seeming pigs at a regular interval to check for internal parasites. Conversely, ensure that the pig has regular bowel movements, as they are prone to constipation. Their urine should not be very dark and concentrated.

Isolate if necessary

If you notice that a pig is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian and/ or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to isolate the pig in order to protect the rest of the herd from a potentially infectious disease.  However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once a pig is showing symptoms, the other residents in the herd have already been exposed. In these instances, you will need to weigh what is in the best interest of all of your residents. A sick pig who is isolated from their herd may become more stressed, which could delay recovery.  Also keep in mind that depending on herd dynamics, it can sometimes be difficult to re-introduce a pig back into their herd. However, a sick or injured pig who is getting bullied or has a condition that requires they be kept alone from others should absolutely be isolated regardless of any concerns you have about their ability to rejoin the herd

Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a pig and what good pig health looks like, you’ll be an excellent pig health ally in no time!

Writing It All Down

As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your pig health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable pig health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!

SOURCES:

Pig Care | Farm Sanctuary

[Potbellied] Pig Health And Sickness | Best Friends

Health Care | Pigs 4 Ever

Examination Of The Pig | Carr Consulting (Non-Compassionate Source)

Keep Pigs Healthy | Government Of Western Australia (Non-Compassionate Source)

Pig Health Issues | The Pig Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 6, 2020

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