How To Safely Be Around A Pig

A human rubs the belly of a smaller potbellied pig outside.
It’s important to learn when it’s ok to rub a belly and when to respect a pig’s space!

Updated June 15, 2020

Although you may have nothing but the best intentions and warmest feelings for them, just like humans, there are times when pigs might not want you in their personal space. Unlike humans, pigs are sometimes much bigger, faster, and sometimes have sharp tusks. Even the most docile pig in your sanctuary might decide they need more alone time than you’re used to them needing, and it’s critical to recognize the signs they’re trying to give you before caution turns to agitation, or worse. Even on a peaceful sanctuary pasture, frightened or upset pigs can cause serious injuries if they feel significantly endangered.

Ask An Expert

If you are not used to being around pigs and are bringing one into your sanctuary, you should have an expert give you hands-on training in pig behavior if at all possible. There are many nuances in their actions that can not be conveyed through words alone!

Never Assume

If you do not personally know an individual pig, do not assume you know how they will react to your presence.

Signs A Pig Wants To Be Left Alone

A pig will use many different tactics to let you know that they don’t want you around at the moment. Signs that a pig is uncomfortable include:

  • Tensing their body
  • Standing their hair up
  • Foaming at the mouth like when they’re hungry (this does not indicate rabies)
  • Flicking their tail from side to side like an irritated cat would

If a pig does not feel like you’ve alleviated their discomfort, they may escalate their body language to include:

  • Long, low grunting or screaming
  • Swiping their head from side to side
  • Straightening their tail
  • Turning sideways with a hunched back and standing their hair up on end
  • Chomping their jaws
  • Putting down their head with their eyes looking up
  • Trying to circle you
  • Looking like they’re deep in thought
Danger Zone

If a pig uses some of the above body language, especially chomping while stepping from side to side, this means that they are very unhappy and will likely try to make you leave their space very soon.

If a pig communicates their discomfort through these signals, you should back away from their living space or personal space slowly. Avoid eye contact with an upset pig, and if necessary, find a way to put something between the two of you, be it a tree, a wagon, or even other pigs. For this reason, it’s also good practice to keep a pig board nearby if spending a lot of time in close proximity to pigs. If at all possible, don’t turn your back and run away from an uncomfortable pig unless you are in immediate danger and need the extra speed.

Things That Make A Pig Uncomfortable

Due to their natural instincts, there are a number of actions that you might have to take in a sanctuary environment that can make a pig less comfortable. Here are a few of their instincts and how they may react to a disruption:

Daily Habits

Pigs find a lot of comfort in daily routines, and can become annoyed or afraid if their routine is disrupted, so be extra gentle and allow extra time if you’re asking your pigs to do something they aren’t used to doing like going to a new pasture or barn. You should also anticipate quite a bit of displeasure if you disrupt or delay their meals!

Flight Zone

Like most herd animals, pigs have a flight zone. This is the area of personal space surrounding them where they feel safe and comfortable. Different pigs will have different sized flight zones, especially depending upon whether they’ve come from traumatic backgrounds; a skittish pig might have a huge flight zone compared to the nearly non-existent flight zone of a docile resident. If you breach a pig’s flight zone, they will likely walk away from you. If you go much more into their flight zone, they might bolt or display signs of fear or agitation that you need to respect in order to prevent a dangerous scenario.

Don't Get Cornered

If you are cornered or in a tight space with a pig who is frightened, there’s a chance that they could push you into a wall or a gate in order to escape the situation, so it’s absolutely crucial that you always have an appropriate escape route, and take your time approaching the pig to gauge how they’re going to react as you get nearer!

Hearing

Pigs are very sensitive to high pitched and loud noises, which are typically used as alarms among themselves. Being yelled at, hearing barking dogs, or encountering loud noises can spook, agitate, and trigger flight and charge responses in wary pigs. Try to be very cautious with volume around pigs and keep talkative dogs away from them to prevent incidents.

Herding

Pigs prefer to naturally herd together to shelter from the elements and protect themselves from predators. If you need to single out or separate a pig, it’s likely that the pig might get depressed, lonely, or highly anxious. If you do need to separate a pig, move them slowly and quietly, limit their alone time, and keep their herd nearby.

Hunger

Pigs, especially large breed pigs, have famously voracious appetites. If it’s near mealtime and they haven’t gotten their regularly scheduled food yet, they may be more prone to exhibiting signs of discomfort (especially loud vocalizations) than usual!

Illness Or Discomfort

If a pig has fallen ill or is generally uncomfortable, including if they’re overheated, they may be more irritable and distressed than usual. It’s important to consider administering a pig health examination on pigs who are acting up more often than they used to.

Maternal Instincts

If you’re caring for a mother pig with piglets, they will be rightfully protective of their young. Provide ample space for the mother and piglets, never going between them. If for some reason you need to separate the mother and piglets, such as for a health examination, be very gentle in separating them, anticipating quite a bit of displeasure from the mother, especially if she has suffered abuse in the past.  It is not uncommon for even a typically friendly, easy-going pig to become confrontational when separated from her piglets, even for a short period.  Also remember that piglets are often very vocal when restrained, and mother pigs are very responsive to the calls of their babies.  Only separate mothers and babies when absolutely necessary, but keep in mind that if you must perform a health examination on a piglet or administer a treatment to them, it will likely be safest to do so away from their mother in order to avoid a situation where the piglet’s vocal protest leads to a highly agitated, protective mother pig quickly coming your way.  Always reunite mothers and babies as soon as possible and avoid situations where they must be separated for more than a few minutes unless absolutely necessary due to a medical condition.  And remember, just because a piglet has grown into a large adolescent or adult, it doesn’t necessarily mean their mother will cease being protective!  

Sight

Although they have excellent senses of hearing and smell, pigs have poor vision, especially directly in front of them. They have limited ability to focus on subjects compared to humans. Therefore, if a pig is relying upon vision to see you or explore an area they haven’t been in before, they may be more hesitant and uncomfortable than usual. Give them extra time and a gentle touch if you need to bring them into a new space!

Surprise

If a pig feels sneaked up upon (especially a pig with diminished senses), their surprise may register as discomfort or aggression to a human. Always give them ample heads up when entering their space!

Tips For Safely Handling A Pig

Because of the importance of regular health examinations and operations, it’s critical to ensure that you or your veterinarian can safely handle each of your pigs. If they aren’t averse to humans due to past trauma, you can help accustom pigs to your touch by running your hands gently over their bodies and legs when they’re relaxed, or give them belly rubs if they like! Some pigs may never be fully comfortable with humans and may need to be examined by an expert with assistance every time. It is unacceptable to use a steel snare on a pig. It is a cruel implement and will only serve to make them dislike handling and human contact even more. Only use a rope snare with a quick release knot slipped over their top snout if snaring is necessary. If a pig needs to get out of the snare quickly, a quick release knot (as well as a backup knife to cut the rope) is critical to protect the pig’s health. To secure a pig, tie the snare to a secured post rather than a gate or fencing, which a pig could pull down when trying to get out of their snare. A pig will most likely loudly disagree with being snared, but this does not mean they are in pain!

What Does 'Unacceptable' Mean?

At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.

SOURCES:

Pig Care | Farm Sanctuary

General Overview Of Pigs Behavior | Minipig Info

Aggressive [Mini] Pigs | Minipig Info

General Behavior Of Pigs In Captivity | California Potbellied Pig Association

Updated on December 23, 2020

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