By Tabitha Davies ACDBC and Laura Bourhenne CDBC
Pigs are highly intelligent creatures. As a professional animal trainer, I will say pigs are more intelligent than dogs in many respects. They are also very emotionally sensitive; I’d compare them to an 18-month-old infant. They lack impulse control, don’t stay as tiny as many advertise, and in the wrong environment can give a whole new meaning to bringing down the house! Which is why, sadly, it’s not surprising that a pig may find themselves placed into a shelter.
Aside from the issues any sheltered animal faces, pigs present some additional challenges. Here is an overview of how to care for and interact with pigs in a shelter environment, and what to expect from a pig in a shelter.
So, a pig has lost their family, their home. They are surrounded by dogs, who they instinctually recognize as predators, even if they haven’t been exposed to them previously. (If they have been exposed, they may know dogs just as “the bitey things.”) So to say that pig in a shelter is stressed is an understatement. Close your eyes and imagine what it’s like to be a dog in a shelter kennel surrounded by rows of barking dogs, footsteps, sounds of doors opening and closing, sounds of the air circulation system turning on and off, hoses being pulled, gates opening, and closing. Now imagine hearing all those same sounds as the type of animal that gets hunted by others, being unable to look up and having only a select range of vision and limited mobility and agility. How much more intensely would these changes affect you?
When a pig is in a stressful environment and on edge, locked into a small space, or surrounded by loud noises, they can go into fight or flight mode. This doesn’t make the pig aggressive, but it means that the pig is so over threshold and unable to cope that they are ready to behave aggressively toward anything they fear.This means they can exhibit head-swiping, charging, nipping, and worse if the pig has tusks.
Understanding how to make a pig feel comfortable, keep staff safe, and get the pig to an appropriate rescue or adopter ASAP is crucial. But in the meantime, what do you do?
Shelters are designed to house dogs and cats, not pigs. Pigs are excellent at chain link removal; they can do this in less time than it takes dogs, with less effort, and with far more finesse. Shelters are designed to keep dogs separate and physically safe, but can pose serious dangers for pigs. Pigs will test enclosures, especially when afraid, and if they find a weak point and try to push through it, they can get caught. This often leads to “squealing” like a pig, which can set off dogs within the kennel environment, possibly triggering escape behaviors for both the dogs the pigs — if they both get out, there could be an absolute disaster for everyone.
I’ve seen the problems caused by assuming that housing designed for dogs will be adequate for pigs outside of shelter situations, too. A neighbor of mine called us over last year to help unstick his pet pig from a dog kennel he concreted into his yard. The pig was stuck between the bar and the concrete, having bent it up but not pulled out the corner supports. He had injured his side pretty badly and was in need of emergency care. This all happened in less than 30 minutes from his having been placed into his new enclosure.
If the pig has to be in a kennel, double and triple check the environment. If a pig can get their nose in it, they can damage it. Spaces between kennel gates and block walls can be covered by adding 2x4s, one on the interior and one on the exterior, bolted together every 2 feet.
Concrete floors are cold and brutal on the sensitive nose of a pig, which is meant to move around rooting in the ground all day foraging for food. Concrete causes scrapes and sores on their sensitive skin and the pads of their feet. Yes, these hooved creatures have soft fleshy pads on each side of their hoof.
Proper bedding and living conditions for a pig are vital to their mental and emotional health. Ideally, a pig will have a covered enclosure bedded with pine shavings, lots of blankets, or straw, anything they can cover themselves with. (I’m not a fan of straw, because it’s sharp and it gets hot and decomposes, which can cause fires when composting. Plus, if it’s not properly maintained, pigs can try and chew on it, but mostly it slivers like old wood. And it does nothing to reduce smell!) Stay away from stuffed dog beds, which usually get torn to shreds.
Ensure the pig has a bucket or sturdy pool large enough to soak in, along with a fresh water source. Be aware that pigs like to rub and scratch, and keep an eye out for any sharp edges in the kennel. Shavings on a concrete floor can add protection from hard floor injuries as well. Make sure they can’t get their noses, tails or feet into the cage next to them, especially if there is a dog next door.
Pigs are naturally clean animals that are easily housetrained. If you put wood shavings in one corner, and their blankets, food and water on the opposite side, they will use the shavings for their bathroom, making for a nice, clean enclosure. When I saw my pig in the shelter before he was available, I knew he would be easy to housetrain. Even though they had shavings in the entire enclosure, he chose one corner to use for his bathroom.
Another important fact: Pigs do not sweat. Their bristles are not like normal fur and they do blow that coat out at certain periods. This means that, unlike dogs, you cannot quite regulate a pig’s body temperature just by having them in the shade. If they are outside in warm weather, they need access to a clean mud pit and fresh water. They need access to warm blankets and shavings in cooler temperatures. What keeps a kennel comfortable for the dogs may be too cold for a pig.
Food and water
Pigs are omnivores but have very different needs from dogs and cats and can not share their diets without health issues occurring. Pigs take most of their hydration from fresh fruits, greens, and veggies, so having properly prepared meals is essential for a pig to be healthy.
Dry pellets should not just be left in a bowl for them to free feed from. They should be portioned and have water added or spread around for the pig to forage. Pellets absorb a lot of water, so when adding water, use more than you think you need. The result should be mushy, but not watery. If the pig is stressed and won’t eat, then adding water or natural fruit juice may make a difference. The main reason to do this is that pigs eat quickly (you could even say they eat like a pig), but if the pellets are dry they can easily choke and inhale the dust from the pellets. In addition, they don’t typically drink a lot of water on their own, so adding water to the pellets, in addition to offering fresh vegetables and fruit, is another way to ensure they don’t become dehydrated in this new, stressful environment.
Water dishes need to be large enough that the pig can get their head into them, and low enough that they can get their necks/jowls over the edge, but also heavy enough that they can’t tip over. That’s not an easy task, because pigs are much stronger than you’d think, so water dishes should be checked regularly in case they tip them over.
Moving them around
Do not leash a pig as you would a dog. Pigs have different and very sensitive anatomy. If the pig isn’t leash-trained, there is a proper way to do it, but traditional tools like slip leads and dog body harnesses are not safe for pigs. I would recommend assuming the pig is not leash-trained unless it is relinquished on a leash.
Every shelter where a pig is likely to end up should have a sorting board or something similar. If you can’t harness a pig, which most pigs in a shelter won’t allow, then sorting boards are the way to move them from one place to another without much stress. In addition, they should be used to protect those who enter the enclosure if the pig is showing any signs of fear or aggression. Sorting boards come in many sizes but don’t have to be anything fancy, just a strong piece of thick plywood with holes cut for hands will work fine. When entering an enclosure with a scared pig that might strike out, always place a board between you. That way you can change the water, food, and bedding and clean up without a confrontation. Just ignore the pig, be non-threatening, and go about your business while keeping the board between you. Do not use a broom, pooper scooper, or anything else to try and move a pig or scare a pig away from you. Those things are likely to be in the pig’s new home, and you don’t want to create a bad association with them.
Behavior issues you may see
Many pigs that end up in shelters are unaltered. This often makes them act aggressively, but does not mean that the pig is inherently aggressive. Females can come into their first heat as young as 15 weeks old, and it happens every 21 days. They can be very, very aggressive when in season. They will bite hard and aim for your hands, knees, anything they can grab. Intact males will hump anything in sight. When in their enclosure, they will jump up and try to hump and bite you. Pigs bite hard; they can leave bruises and break skin, even without tusks. This is when a sorting board is a necessity for anyone entering their enclosure.
Excessive scratching and rubbing
Pigs scratch and rub on most objects around them, even people, but when a pig is scratching constantly and seemingly itchy or allergic the culprit may be mange, a tiny parasite that burrows under the skin consuming the shaft and hair follicles and causing intense itching. During periods of stress, a pig’s immune system can become depressed, causing mange . A pig could also have been surrendered already having mange. It is best to consider most pigs entering a shelter to be carriers of mange and have them properly dewormed with a product that will also kill mange mites. It’s best to discuss with your shelters veterinarian how they would like you to proceed. In addition, using a stiff-bristle horse brush on a social and itchy pig can give them relief and provide some nice relaxation time.
Some suggestions for enrichment
A bored pig is a destructive and erratic pig. They remind me of a hormonal teenager who has been grounded. They can get themselves into all kinds of trouble! Some ways to provide enrichment for pigs are:
• Have them eat their food from a snuffle mat, like in this video
• Hide fruits, veggies, and greens in small bowls around the enclosure.
• Use horse stall toys such as jolly balls (without a handle loop, solid ball only).
• Hang flavored licks, or tie up heads of lettuce, bushels of leafy veggies, or root vegetables at a height at nose level for the pig to work at stretching and moving to access the food.
• Licki-Mats are excellent when filled with probiotic-rich yogurt.
• Shoe brushes (if properly anchored) can be provided for normal scratching fun, and to prevent rubbing on kennel doors, fences, etc.
• Squeaky, soft, or crinkly toys without stuffing are also great for pigs to play with.
To conclude, shelters should do everything possible to be prepared to house pigs safely for short periods of time, until longer-term accommodations can be secured. With a few supplies, a bit of planning, and the knowledge of pig needs provided here, most organizations can be ready in the event that a pig needs their care.
Tabitha Davies CPDT-KA, ACDBC, FF-C, PNC-C has been training animals for 17 years. She has been working with pigs for around 10 years, and has been dealing with behavior cases for 8 years. She is lucky enough to own two pigs of my own – a sweet 3-year-old pot belly mix named Gwendolyn, and an 18-month-old pot belly named Chris P. Bacon. She shares her southern California home with 2 kids, a goat, 3 horses, 30 chickens, and a bunch of wayward dogs. She describes herself as “forever a dog and pig nerd, I mean student!”
Laura Bourhenne, CDBC, CCPDT-KA, founded Animal Attraction Unlimited in 1989 after earning her degree in Exotic Animal Training from Moorpark College with emphases on Operant and Classical Conditioning, and Animal Husbandry, Handling and Management. Since then she has continued keeping up to date on her education by attending numerous seminars and conferences each year. Over the last 30 years, Laura has helped thousands of pets and their families learn to live in harmony. Laura and her friend Kim Rinehardt have a podcast called Doggie Dish Radio where they discuss dog behavior and general training concepts.