How to care for pigs
Whether you are looking to welcome a new pig into the family, or are just interested in our smart farmyard friends, we have put together a guide on what pigs need to be happy and healthy.
A very familiar farmyard animal that all ages know and love, pigs have been domesticated for thousands of years, and are a sub-species of the wild boar. While it may be a given that pigs adore their food, it’s best to be careful about the types of food and treats pigs can and should eat. It is a common misconception that pigs will eat anything and everything. Pigs are omnivores and evolved to eat meat and vegetables. Incredibly, they have over 10,000 taste buds, whereas humans have only 6,000 – this suggests that pigs have an excellent sense of taste, and allows them to identify nutritious food and help them stay away from potentially poisonous foods.
Making sure food is safe to feed to pigs
The ideal diet for pigs should be a balanced and varied diet, and include a combination of pig nuts (commercial pig pellets) and a variety of specific types of fruit and vegetables. Healthy vegetables for pigs include, leafy dark greens, zucchini, cabbage, squashes, cucumber, amongst others. Talk with your local veterinary about a specific “do not feed” list for your pig.
There are rules that prohibit feeding pigs with any food wastes that contain, or have come in contact with meat – unless certain requirements are met that reduce the risk of spreading diseases. Therefore, you should be aware of the requirements and check the Biosecurity New Zealand website for further details (https://www.mpi.govt.nz/processing/pet-food-inedibles-animal-feed-and-supplements/animal-feed-and-disease-prevention/feeding-food-waste-to-pigs-and-preventing-disease/).
Be aware of foods that contain apple/pear seeds, cassava, wild mushrooms and green/raw potatoes, unripened tomatoes, as these contain toxins that are harmful to pigs. Again, putting together a list of “do not feed” in conjunction with your veterinarian is recommended.
Be careful to make sure that your pig does not overeat. If a pig becomes too large, they are prone to conditions, such as arthritis. Pasture can help complement your pigs diet and provide natural foraging behaviour, which is great for their mental and physical welfare. However, pigs cannot live on grass alone.
Don’t forget cool, clean water! It is vital that pigs have a fresh, clean supply of cool water at all times. In the summer months, pigs need extra water provisions to help keep them cool, as they have a limited ability to sweat. The temperature of the water is also important to consider, in that if it is too warm it may reduce the amount of water the pigs will drink. The best way to set up a supply for them is in a sturdy and specialised drinking station that they can’t flip over or get dirty (e.g. nipple drinkers). Ensure there is enough space and drinking places for all of your pigs.
A palace for a pig
Pigs are sensitive animals, and need to be able to keep cool during the summer and warm and snug during the winter, therefore they need shade and shelter. Unlike humans, pigs have very few sweat glands; this is why you will often see pigs wallowing in mud or keeping cool in shady spots, and it is important that they are given the opportunity to do this. It also helps prevent sunburn on their sensitive skin.
Providing pigs with a den or an arc in which they can sleep comfortably is important. Ensure that there is clean, fresh deep bedding such as straw or hay in the sleeping area, and don’t forget to top the bedding up, and clean it out when needed. Be aware of behavioural signs that your pigs are too hot or too cold.
Pigs are incredibly clean animals, despite their reputation. Contrary to popular belief, pigs will not roll in their own filth or waste, and where they are given appropriate space, will use separate areas to sleep and to toilet in. Having another area in which to play and forage (or root around in) is perfect. An ideal set-up for pigs would include a bedded area for sleeping, and a paddock where they can forage, eat and drink and a secluded spot to toilet. Pigs are smart and can even be toilet-trained. When given ample space they will not soil where they sleep. When setting up the pigs’ accommodation, remember these points:
- Is their ‘sleeping’ area made of a material that is waterproof and will not get too hot in the sun? Adding vents at the back of the pigs’ shelter will help keep them cool and will provides good, even airflow. Metal or corrugated iron is not recommended to make the shelter from as it can get hot in the sun, and may cause pigs to overheat.
- If you have multiple pigs, is it big enough for them to snuggle together, but also have enough space that they can lay apart when needed? Be sure the flooring is secure, as pigs may become stressed if their four hooves are not firmly on the ground.
- Make sure there are no sharp edges that might hurt your pigs, and make sure they can’t chew any treated timber surfaces, or other loose materials.
- Make sure the paddock or field area is securely fenced. If there is a way out, pigs will find it, so you will need to be certain that their area is pig proof.
Did you know that pigs are as smart as a three-year-old human? They are able to respond to their name, and can be taught tricks (being food-driven animals plays a part here).
Pigs are extremely sociable animals, and enjoy spending time with their own kind, so consider keeping them in pairs or small groups of compatible animals.
Pigs also do well around other companion animals, including, cows, dogs and sheep, and bond well with their human family.
With their intelligence often comes a desire to investigate; it’s fair to say that pigs are profoundly curious and love to forage and play. For this reason, a secure home for them is a must, as is providing them with entertainment and things to do. Their natural behaviours include rooting around in plants and grass, foraging, and socialising and communicating with other pigs.
Here’s the fun part, making your own treats and toys for your pigs. Fill containers, tubs or scrunched-up paper with vegetables, so they have to use their snout to uncover the delicious delicacies. Alternatively, try freezing blended vegetables in the summer, this will help your pigs to cool down while eating this treat. You can provide pigs with fun and noisy toys, but just make sure the toys are safe and that the pigs don’t upset your neighbours while having fun with their noisy toys. Hide treats and toys around the pigs’ paddock and come up with new creative ideas to keep varying their enrichment so that the pigs aren’t prone to becoming bored. Keeping them entertained doesn’t have to break the bank.
Most of the items you need to create great pig enrichment can be found around your house and repurposed. In their natural environment, pigs spend 75% of their time during the day in activities, such as rooting, foraging and exploring. Pigs love to forage for roots, insects and other tasty titbits, so it’s good to remember that your land won’t stay in perfect condition when your pigs are out ranging.
Pigs don’t just use their snouts for sniffing out food or foraging, they also use it to communicate. They make a range of different noises, such as squeals. These noises can be as loud as 115 decibels, which is louder than the sound of a plane! Research has shown that pigs can make as many as 20 different sounds, which includes grunting, snorting and barking. All these have slightly different purposes: squealing means they are happy, and grunting is usually expressed by a mother pig when feeding her babies. Most owners will tell you that their pig also makes unique sounds, just like a cat or a dog may.
A Forever Friend
Pigs can live for up to 15 years, so be sure you are prepared for their needs and are ready for a long-term commitment.
Pigs require lots of secure space with a weatherproof, well-ventilated shed or arc that contains fresh, deep beds of hay or straw. They need enrichment, the right amount of healthy, tasty food and the company of other compatible pigs.
If you are prepared for their needs, pigs are a joy to be around and make a wonderful addition to your family. They are smart cookies who will constantly surprise you with their cheeky antics, quirky sounds and ability to make friends with animals, including us.
Talk to your local veterinarian if you have any concerns about the health or welfare of your pigs.