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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!

    This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s team as of May 19, 2022

    Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of pig residents with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until someone 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 calm and allow you to perform certain treatments or procedures more easily. 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 residents both for behaviors that are abnormal for their species and also for 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. You can read more about daily observation for pig health and well-being here.

    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.

    green pig graphic

    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!

    Supplies

    Before conducting a health examination, it’s helpful to gather any supplies you may need and have them arranged nearby for easy access. Having everything you will likely need nearby can make the examination go more smoothly and, in the event that the individual must be restrained in some way for any part of the exam, will reduce the amount of time they must be restrained. If you are performing an exam on someone with a known health issue, you may need additional supplies than those listed below. Otherwise, supplies to have on hand during pig health exams include:

    • Recordkeeping supplies
    • Hoof nippers, trimming shears, hoof file, and/or rotary tools such as a Hoof Boss or Dremel
    • Styptic powder or other blood stop product
    • Liquid hoof bandage
    • Gigli saw wire, handles, wire cutters, and eye protection (if you are trained to trim tusks)
    • Gauze squares (​​non-sterile is typically fine, but there may be times when sterile gauze is necessary)
    • Exam gloves
    • Pig-safe topical disinfectant (such as dilute chlorhexidine)
    • Saline flush
    • Pig-safe ointments or creams such as a triple antibiotic ointment or silver sulfadiazine cream 1% (SSD)
    • Cotton-tipped applicators
    • Tweezers
    • Headlamp, penlight, or flashlight
    • Thermometer and lubricant (good to have on hand in case you suspect someone is ill based on exam findings)
    • Towels

    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!

    Before beginning the actual exam, it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to observe the individual. If you use some form of restraint for the examination, it’s a good idea to take time to observe everyone in the herd prior to restraining anyone since restraint of one resident might put others on edge. Take note of their behavior, activity level, and general appearance. If they are up, take note of how they are standing and how they are moving.

    Time To Eat!
    If you care for pigs, you likely know that they are well aware of when it is time for them to eat and can lose patience quickly if their meal is delayed. Keep this in mind when planning for health examinations. Attempting to conduct exams when residents know it’s time, or almost time, to eat can make things more challenging than they need to be. You might want to feed your residents prior to starting health examinations and wait for everyone to settle after eating, or be prepared to take a break so residents can eat at their regularly scheduled time.

    During regularly scheduled health examinations, your goal is to check every inch of the pig. However, depending on your method for performing health exams (for example whether you use some form of restraint or check individuals while they enjoy a belly rub), you may find that you cannot check the individual’s entire body during one “session”. If this is the case, be sure to take good notes so you can keep track of the areas that still need to be checked (perhaps during a relaxing belly rub you were able to check the individual’s feet and entire left side, but because they were lying on their right side, were unable to check this side of their body and will need to check this area later). In some cases, particularly if restraint is involved, it can be helpful to have multiple caregivers checking the individual at once in order to make the process go faster and reduce the amount of time they must be restrained. In this case, be sure to have clear expectations of which areas each person should be checking so that nothing is missed.

    Safety First!
    Certain diseases can be spread from pigs to humans and vice versa. Therefore, we recommend wearing gloves when working with individuals who appear ill, who have open wounds, or who are showing signs of skin issues.

    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. You should be the resident’s advocate, not their doctor.

    Up next, we’ll go over important components of a health examination, which do not need to be completed in this particular order.

    Check their weight and body condition
    Ensuring pig residents maintain a healthy weight can be a real challenge, which is why providing a healthy diet and closely monitoring your residents’ weight and body condition is so important. Depending on the individuals you care for and your setup, physically weighing pig residents regularly may not be feasible, but it’s still important to find a way to keep track of their general weight and body condition. Estimating a pig’s weight takes quite a bit of practice and experience. We recommend you work with your veterinarian to estimate your pigs’ weights if weighing them is not an option. Additionally, be sure to take any opportunity you can to make note of their weight. For example, when residents go to the vet for a check-up or procedure, ask if they can be weighed and make sure you record their weight in your records. Having this information is not only helpful in terms of having more concrete information for that particular individual, it can also help you determine if your weight estimates are close or not. 

    In addition to actual or estimated weights, pay close attention to their body condition. We recommend working with your veterinarian to ensure that anyone assessing body condition is properly trained and is using the same scoring system. Signs a resident is overweight include fat rolls over the eyes, bulging jowls, and fat that hangs down over the legs. Signs a resident is too thin include prominent shoulder blades and hip bones. 

    Unexplained weight loss should be explored with your veterinarian to determine the cause which could be any number of things including parasitism, dental disease, or other diseases. If someone appears to be gaining weight and moving away from their ideal body condition, it’s important to make sure you aren’t overfeeding them or feeding them a diet that is too high in protein or fat. Excess weight can put pig residents at risk of serious health challenges such as arthritis and hoof issues. Keep in mind that when feeding a group of pigs together, weight gain and weight loss could also be explained by social dynamics, with individuals being “pushed out” or too timid to eat their fair share or with certain individuals eating a bit more than they should. In these cases, spreading out the food or separating certain individuals to eat with just their designated portion may be all that is needed.
    Check their head and neck
    When in an upright position, how are they holding their head? Look for any sign of a head tilt which could be a sign of an ear infection or other illness, and also watch to see if they are constantly shaking their head (some shaking, particularly after coming out of the water or mud or after having their ears cleaned, is normal). Feel along the sides of their face, under their jaw, and along their neck for any lumps or bumps. Be aware that pigs have a gland under their chin that is a normal part of their anatomy.
    Check their eyes
    The pig should have bright, clean, open eyes that are free of discharge. Signs of concern include cloudy, watery, oozy, dry, swollen, or crusty eyes, as well as squinting or constantly blinking or rubbing the area. If the eye appears to be bothering them and is swollen or they are squinting, check to see if there is debris causing the issue. When using straw bedding or feed hay, seeds may become lodged in the inner corner of the eye causing swelling and irritation. These must be removed and in some cases may be easily removed with light pressure or a gloved hand, but if this is not the case, contact your veterinarian for immediate guidance. If you have any concerns about your residents’ eye(s) be sure to contact your veterinarian, as prompt treatment improves the prognosis.

    Check that the inner membrane of the eyelid is moist and pink. A pale color could indicate anemia. Their pupils should be about the same size and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal).
    Check their ears
    Generally, a pig’s ears should not be drooping unless their ears are normally floppy. 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 smooth and not discolored, as this is a common area for sunburn and skin cancer.

    It’s not unusual for a pig to have a modest amount of earwax or debris in their ears, and this can be gently removed using a piece of gauze. Be careful not to scratch the inside of their ear with long nails or rings on your finger. If you opt for a wet piece of gauze to clean the ear, wring out as much liquid as possible to avoid fluid getting trapped in the ear.
    Check their snout
    The pig’s nose should be moist, but copious amounts of discharge or discharge that is thick or bloody are signs of concern. Check their snout for any cuts or wounds, which can commonly happen with curious pigs who use those noses to explore and rearrange things!
    Check their mouth
    The pig’s mouth should be aligned and symmetric. Unless they are anticipating food, they should not be drooling excessively. Their breathing should be quiet and even. Generally, a pig who is not stressed should have a respiratory rate of 15-50 breaths per minute. If you must use restraint to perform part or all of the examination, it’s a good idea to assess their respiratory rate before restraining them. Signs of concern include coughing, sneezing, and loud, wheezy, rattly, rapid, labored, or wet-sounding breathing. Pay attention to any odors on their breath or coming from their mouth as this could indicate an issue such as pneumonia or dental disease. Their gums should be moist and pink. Pale gums could be a sign of anemia. Male pigs typically need their lower tusks trimmed occasionally, but it is a process that requires a compassionate pig expert or veterinarian to teach you how to safely perform. Improper tusk trimming, such as trimming too close to the gum or using the wrong tools can cause serious issues.
    Check their abdomen
    A pig’s abdomen should not be distended or tight, and they should not appear painful when their abdomen is touched. Check for any abnormal lumps. Their nipples should be symmetric and should not be hot, swollen, discolored, or painful. When checking male pigs, check their prepuce for any discharge or scabbing. Gently pressing on the area behind the prepuce may cause them to release foul-smelling urine, but there should be no sign of pus, blood, or pain, which could indicate infection. 
    Check their legs
    Check their legs for any signs of swelling, heat, or pain, feeling all the way up to their shoulders when checking the front legs. It’s normal for pigs to have small glands on the back of their front legs arranged in a vertical line. There should be no sign of the individual bearing weight unevenly between their legs or signs of pain when walking.
    Check their feet
    Check for any heat, redness, swelling, or sensitivity at the coronary band. If noted, contact your veterinarian immediately. Pigs will need their hooves trimmed when they become overgrown. You can read more about hoof trimming here. While checking their feet, make note of any cracks in the hoof wall. While shallow cracks can often be buffed out with a sanding tool, deep cracks can result in lameness, inflammation, and infection. Vertical cracks associated with the coronary band are especially concerning because they can result in infection deep in the foot. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if one of your residents has a deep vertical crack, a crack originating at the coronary band, or a hoof crack plus lameness, sensitivity, discharge, heat, or other concerning finding. They can evaluate the individual and make treatment recommendations. If infection is a concern, radiographs may be recommended to assess bone involvement.
    Check their rear end
    The pig’s butt should be relatively clean. It shouldn’t have any discharge or excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty or bloody. Make sure that it isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding) and that there are no signs of parasites. 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 sign of a serious issue such as an infection or cancer.  Make sure there is no sign of prolapse and that the tissue looks healthy – scabbing could be a sign of skin cancer. Check their tail for any signs of wounds or injury.
    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. Make note of any bumps, discoloration, scabbing, wounds, or abnormal hair loss. Pay extra attention to the skin behind the ears, as this is a common spot for skin cancer. Check for any signs of external parasites.
    Isolate if necessary
    If you notice that a pig is unhealthy, or are concerned about a particular finding, 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 illnesses, once a pig is showing symptoms, the other residents in the herd may 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 away 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

    Examination Of The Surgical Patient (Pig), from Farm Animal Surgery, Second Edition

    Basic Information Sheet: Miniature Pigs: Lafeber Vet

    Routine Veterinary Care Of The Miniature Pig | Lafeber Vet

    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.

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