A litter of newborn piglets is one of the greatest pleasures of raising pigs until you notice that the mother’s eating them!
Do pigs eat their babies? Sows do eat their babies. If a piglet is still-born or crushed, a sow will clean up by eating the dead piglet. Some sows become aggressive and attack healthy piglets, sometimes killing them. Savaging and cannibalism aren’t common behaviors, but they do happen, causing distress and loss of income.
Why Pigs Eat their Babies
Eating a still-born piglet is a natural behavior for sows. Leaving a dead body lying around increases the risk of infection and attracts the attention of predators.
Removing a dead body while consuming her afterbirth is one thing, but actively attacking her offspring is quite another.
Do pigs crush their babies? Sometimes sows do step on or crush their piglets. Roughly 50% of piglet deaths are caused by the sow in the pen. This happens when piglets and sow have room to move around. Such mistakes are hardly surprising, given their size. Our sow weighs around 500 lb, whereas piglets weigh little more than 4 lb!
These accidents usually happen within the first 48 hours of the piglet’s life. If a sow accidentally kills one of her babies, she will often eat the dead piglet, presumably to keep her enclosure clean.
On occasions, a pig may become actively aggressive towards her own piglets. This behavior is known as savagery and is not normal behavior. A savage sow will attack its own piglets, biting them on the face, neck, and body so severely that it results in their deaths. She may also eat their remains.
8 Reasons Pigs Eat Their Babies
There are usually common reasons why pigs eat their piglets. First-time young mothers, called gilts, are more likely to eat their piglets, especially if housed with other young mothers. Stressed sows, overcrowded, overweight sows, large litters, and a higher proportion of female piglets can also contribute to higher incidents of piglet savagery.
#1 First-Time Mothers Are More Likely To Savage Their Young
Studies show that young female pigs, known as gilts, are more likely to savage their piglets than sows. Gilts farrowing for the first time are more likely to savage their piglets than sows. While 1.22% of sows “killed one or more of their piglets,” 3.4% of gilts demonstrated this behavior.
Amongst gilts, savaging contributed to 7.70% of total pre-weaning deaths. In sows, it dropped by more than half to just 3.13%. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that a gilt that savages her first litter is more likely to be aggressive towards future offspring.
#2 Gilts Housed Together are More Aggressive
Researchers have found a higher incidence of savagery in all-gilt environments than in those where younger and older animals live together. In all-gilt environments, the level of aggression appears higher, leading to the deaths of more piglets.
#3 Restless Pigs are More Likely to Savage
Savage sows tend to be restless before and during farrowing. They change position frequently while giving birth, finding it difficult to lie down without endangering their piglets.
Therefore, scientists believe that savaging may be part of a more generalized behavioral pathology and not be directed specifically at the piglets themselves.
#4 Noise and Disturbances Increase Sow Savaergy
Pigs constantly exposed to noise and new stimuli before farrowing are more likely to become aggressive. The fewer humans interact with or disturb the sow, the less likely she is to savage her offspring.
#5 Limited Space Increases Piglet-Directed Aggression
A sow will create a nest in a natural environment before giving birth. Our sows have constructed grass nests that stand over a meter high and stretch over 2 meters wide in the past.
Studies show that allowing a sow to nest improves her maternal and nursing behavior.
A sow kept in a cramped enclosure with no access to straw is likelier to exhibit negative communicatory behaviors such as pushing, threatening barks, and biting.
#6 Hormonal Fluctuation can Increase Maternal Aggression
Gilts with high estradiol levels in their systems are more likely to show signs of maternal aggression. Estradiol is an estrogen steroid hormone that plays a critical role in pregnancy. If a sow has a high estradiol level of estradiol before and after farrowing, she’s more likely to show signs of aggression.
Stressed sows also show signs of abnormal levels of oxytocin, the hormone and neurotransmitter more commonly associated with childbirth and breastfeeding.
Both abnormally high and deficient oxytocin levels have been linked to increased aggression and savaging.
#7 Excessive Body Condition Increases Savaging
Researchers have identified a “strong association” between excess body condition (fat pigs) and savaging in gilts. They believe it could be due to a build-up of fat in the pelvis area. This build-up would restrict the birth canal, making farrowing more difficult and painful.
Excessive body condition may also cause excess piglet growth, impeding farrowing.
#8 Piglet Gender May Influence Sow Aggression
Studies indicate a notable lack of savagery in litters that contain more males than females. Similarly, larger litters seem to experience higher mortality than smaller litters.
Prevent Savaging in Sows and Gilts
Sows usually eat their babies for one of several common reasons. Understanding those reasons can help you to prevent the situations that induce savage.
You can reduce savage and cannibalism in pigs by handling sows cautiously, especially around and after farrowing. Giving birth is stressful for sows. Feed sows and decreases stress to lower the incidents of sow savage. Sows that have a pen with nesting materials and a quiet area don’t eat their pigs as much.
Handlers can also reduce savagery by assisting sows with difficult farrowing, muzzling aggressive sows, maintaining their healthy weight, and feeding them before they birth.
Sympathetic Handling can Prevent Savagery
Human attitudes affect the behavior of domestic pigs. An annoyed handler working with a gilt or sow can harm that animal’s maternal behavior. Making excessive noise or failing to feed on time can also increase the pig’s levels of aggression.
Sticking to a set schedule and going about your tasks calmly and quietly can improve maternal behavior and reduce the risk of savagery among gilts and pigs.
Creating a Stress-free Environment Reduces Aggression
When we were still new to pig farming, we allowed several visitors into the enclosure where one of our gilts had just given birth to a litter of 10. The gilt quickly became restless. She walked up and down the enclosure with her head raised, grunting. We quickly left the enclosure, but the damage was already done. When we returned 30 minutes later, three piglets had been trampled or crushed to death. The next day, the death toll was even higher.
In the end, that gilt raised just one piglet from her original litter. At the time, we didn’t realize that our behavior had anything to do with her destructive tendencies.
However, it soon dawned on us that allowing strangers into the enclosure contributed to her stress and exacerbated her aggression.
These days, we leave the sows alone when they first show signs of farrowing. Pigs usually stop eating several hours before farrowing. Then, we move them to a straw-lined enclosure and then leave them in peace. Our subsequent litters have all proved healthy, and the number of deaths has dropped to one or two.
Supervising Farrowing can Improve Survival Rates
Savagery and cannibalism usually occur within the first 48 hours after farrowing. Removing the piglets to a place of safety for this period can improve survival rates.
Piglets are more likely to be crushed, bitten, or savaged in the first couple of days and are at greater risk of contracting a disease. Supervising farrowing and suckling also gives the smaller, weaker piglets a better chance of getting their nutrition.
Farrowing crates were designed so that sows could give birth and suckle their babies safely without the risk of crushing. Unfortunately, there’s also evidence to suggest that they increase “savagery behavior.”
A more humane approach involves providing your sows with nesting materials.
Sows Given Nesting Materials are Less Aggressive
If you give a sow straw to nest in, you should see “a lower frequency of negative communication towards piglets.” If free to build a nest from straw, sows will also engage in more positive, successful nursing bouts and communicate more positively with their piglets.
Promoting positive communication appears to reduce the crushing frequency, increasing the sow’s responsiveness to the cries of her piglets.
Pen Design can Promote Positive Maternal Behaviors
Creating an environment that protects the piglets and encourages positive material behavior can reduce the incidence of savagery and death by crushing.
Including straw or a similar substrate is the first step. You can also create areas that are accessible to the piglets but too small for the sow to enter. This approach gives the piglets a safe place to escape negative maternal behaviors.
Muzzling Aggressive Gilts can Reduce Savagery
You can use an old Wellington boot to make a muzzle for a particularly aggressive gilt. Cut off the foot of the boot and place the leg over the pig’s snout. Use baling twine to secure the muzzle, ensuring it’s not too tight. A muzzle will make it impossible for the sow to bite her piglets and impede eating and drinking.
You can remove the piglets to a safe place while your sow is drinking and eating, returning them only once she’s finished and the muzzle is back in place.
If you don’t have any old boots lying around, you can always invest in a custom-made pig muzzle like this one. Alternatively, you could use a dog muzzle if you can find one designed for large breeds. The advantage of using a dog muzzle like this one is that your pig will still be able to drink while wearing it.
Reduce the Pain of Farrowing, Reduce the Aggression
A sow in pain during farrowing is more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors towards her offspring. Her piglets may also be smaller and weaker, making it more difficult for them to avoid those behaviors.
High pain levels during farrowing are often linked to higher levels of aggression afterward. Providing pain killers to gilts that show signs of hostility or restlessness during farrowing can reduce the incidents of cannibalism and savagery after birth.
Veterinary practitioners often administer the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, Meloxicam to sows around farrowing. It reduces pain, increases post-farrowing recovery, and enhances piglet growth at weaning.
Feeding Prior to Farrowing Can Limit Agitation
Many pig owners stop feeding their sows a few hours before they start farrowing. All the sows we’ve observed over the past ten years stop eating around this time by choice.
However, some researchers believe there could be a connection between the sudden drop in food intake before farrowing and the sow’s levels of agitation and aggression.
Instead of providing your sow with her usual diet of compound feed, you could substitute it with bran.
This method gives your sow something to eat so it may reduce her levels of agitation, but without causing the potential “milking and physical problems” associated with a rich diet.
Maintaining a Sow’s Optimal Weight May Reduce Cannibalism
Scientists suspect there is a link between excessive body condition and cannibalism and savagery in sows.
Breeding sows require fewer nutrients towards the end of their gestation period than at other times in their lives. Feeding a high-protein diet at this time may increase weight gain and promote cannibalism. A low protein, high fiber diet can prevent such weight gain and lower the possibility of negative maternal behaviors.
A diet that includes beet pulp, wheat bran, soy hulls, or alfalfa will adequately prepare your pig for farrowing without causing excessive body condition.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Many Piglets can a Pig have? The average litter size for most pigs is between seven and eight, although some sows may produce as many as 12 to 14 piglets in a single litter. Pigs can have 2 healthy litters a year. Sows carry their litters for 114 days before giving birth. Pigs can have a maximum of 13-16 pigs in a parity.
How Long is a Pig Pregnant? Pigs are pregnant for three months, three weeks, and three days. They’ll give birth within 111 to 120 days of mating. The average pig pregnancy is 114 days. After piglets are weaned, a sow can be bred within 5-7 days. Pigs can have up to two healthy pregnancies each year.
Do Pigs Eat Bacon? Pigs are omnivores and aren’t too fussed about what they eat. They won’t think twice about eating bacon if you offer it to them. But it’s not a good idea to feed your pig raw meat of any description. Uncooked meat can transfer diseases such as foot and mouth disease.
You also don’t want your pig getting a taste for fresh meat. One of our sows managed to get into an enclosure with a couple of young goat kids and, having eaten one, became very determined in her attempts to finish off the other. This article will give you more information about the danger, ethics, and laws of pigs eating pork or bacon.
Do Mini Pigs Eat Their Babies? Mini pigs can turn to savage and eat their babies. Mini pigs are usually pot-bellied pigs and have the same instincts as other pig breeds. Savage usually occurs when a piglet dies and the sow eat it.
Sows will eat still-born piglets and even those they accidentally crush. Therefore, cannibalism is quite common amongst swine. Savagery is less common and considered an abnormal, negative maternal behavior.
Many factors influence a sow’s aggression towards her piglets, including environment, diet, and hormones. Creating a stress-free environment for your farrowing pig is essential in preventing piglet deaths.
Providing nesting materials will help your sow express her natural reproductive behaviors and encourage her to engage in positive maternal interactions with her piglets.
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