Good animal welfare depends on three components:
- Physical well-being
- Mental well-being
- Natural living.
In intensive pig farms all three of these are compromised by periods of confinement in cages, barren environments and mutilations. Pigs also suffer during long distance transport for further fattening and slaughter.
Welfare issues for pigs
Housing of sows
In much of the world it is common for a pregnant sow to be kept in a sow stall (also called a gestation crate) for the whole of her 16-week gestation period. A sow stall is a metal crate or cage, usually with a bare slatted floor, which is so narrow that the sow cannot turn around and can only stand up and lie down with difficulty.
Pregnant sows kept indoors in sow stalls have no access to the outdoors and are deprived of normal movement and activity. In natural conditions, sows live in small groups with their young. They spend much of their day foraging and rooting for food.
Sow stalls are illegal in Sweden and the UK. From 2013, they are banned across the EU, except for the period from weaning of the previous litter until the end of the first 4 weeks of gestation. They are being phased out in certain states in the US and in New Zealand and there is a voluntary industry agreement to phase out their use in Australia. A number of food producing companies are starting to phase them out voluntarily on animal welfare grounds, due to consumer pressure.
A bare sow stall prevents nearly all natural activity and interaction with other pigs. Scientific research shows that gestation crates cause physical and psychological suffering to sows, including lameness due to weaker bones and muscles, abrasion injuries, cardiovascular problems, digestive problems and urinary tract problems.
Sow stall conditions
Potentially upsetting scenes of animal suffering.
Sow stalls are still in use illegally in some EU Member States.
Sow stalls also increase abnormal behaviour such as sham chewing and bar-biting, indicating severe frustration and stress, and sows in crates can exhibit behaviour likened to clinical depression.
Feed is often restricted during pregnancy, causing chronic hunger and increasing the level of frustration.
Shortly before she is due to give birth (farrow), a sow is typically moved to a farrowing crate. This is similar to a sow stall except that there is additional space for the piglets. Bars, to prevent crushing, keep the sow out of the piglets' lying area. Piglets are weaned at about 3 to 4 weeks and even earlier in some countries.
The farrowing crate
Most intensive systems use farrowing crates.
Within a couple of weeks, the sow is inseminated again (often artificially) and starts her next pregnancy. Commercial sows normally produce just over 2 litters a year with around 10-12 piglets per litter. She has a breeding lifetime of about 3 years before being replaced and sold for slaughter.
Farrowing crates also severely restrict the sow’s movement and frustrate her strong motivation to build a nest before giving birth. They prevent the sow from being able to get away from her piglets, for example if they bite her teats. It is common for piglets to have their teeth ground down or clipped, without anaesthetic, to minimise biting injuries.
Farrowing crates have been banned in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. In the rest of the world they are widely used.
Housing of growing pigs
Growing pigs are often kept in barren, crowded conditions on slatted concrete floors without straw for bedding or rooting. These pigs have no access to outdoors and will never experience fresh air or daylight. They are unable to behave naturally and are likely to be bored and frustrated. They tend to fight and to bite each other, sometimes causing severe injury.
In addition to tooth cutting, most piglets have their tails docked to discourage tail biting. This is painful and may cause long-term pain. Stress, illness and conflict often result when piglets are abruptly weaned and mixed with unfamiliar young pigs.
Most male piglets in Europe (but not in the UK and Ireland) are castrated. Public pressure has led to a voluntary declaration aimed at ending the surgical castration of pigs in Europe by 2018. As a first step, signatories will ensure that prolonged pain relief is used for surgical castration of pigs from 2012.
Soon after they are born, the teeth of piglets are often clipped. The purpose of teeth clipping is to reduce injuries caused by piglets to each other and to their mother as they fight for the best teats.
Sows don’t always have enough milk to feed all their piglets, especially if they have large litters or their bodies are in poor conditions. To ensure that at least some of the piglets survive, the strongest get preferential treatment.
The teats nearest the front of her body get the most milk. The teats towards the back of the body get progressively less. Once a piglet has established ownership of a teat, he or she will vigorously defend it.
Watching this clip may be distressing
Shortly after birth (up to 7 days old) many male piglets are surgically castrated, often without anaesthetic or pain relief, by cutting the scrotum with a scalpel and then pulling out their testes and cutting them off. In Europe, this is around 70% of all males, the equivalent to around 90 million piglets every year. This is a painful procedure and major welfare concern.
The main reason piglets are castrated is to prevent “boar taint”. This is the smell or taste of pork that is perceived as undesirable, and caused by the sex hormones, testosterone and androstenone. Males that are reared without castration (entire males) may also be aggressive and show more sexual behaviour, which may cause injury to others if they fight or mount each other and can be dangerous to farm workers if they are aggressive during handling.
Welfare issues of castration
Many piglets are castrated without any anaesthetic or pain relief (analgesics), which causes them short and long-term pain, long-lasting stress and leaves them more prone to infection from the open wound with limited immunity at such a very young age. The extra time and cost involved means that alleviating piglets’ distress is rarely considered.
In countries, such as Denmark and Germany, pain relief is now commonly used, but the timing of the injection is important and it should be given at least half an hour before the procedure, which may not be the case in practice. In the Netherlands CO2/O2 or Isoflurane is used as an anaesthetic. CO2/O2 is known to be aversive to pigs, so while it may make them unconscious it is an unpleasant experience. In a minority of countries, such as Sweden and Lithuania, both anaesthetic and pain relief may be used. The use of both pain relief and a non-aversive anaesthetic is important when surgical castration is performed but this mutilation is causing distress to the pigs and risking their health and welfare. Switzerland has banned castration since 2010.
In countries where speciality meats are made, the pigs need to be reared to a heavier weight so they can produce certain meat cuts or fat content. This means there is more risk of boar taint because the pigs reach puberty, as well as the welfare risk of them injuring each other. Where rearing entire males is not practicable there is another alternative.
Transport and slaughter
Pigs travel badly and are easily stressed by transport and by pre-slaughter handling. They do not have sweat glands and are particularly susceptible to heat stress during transport. Internationally, significant numbers of pigs die each year in transport or in lairage at slaughterhouses as a result of stress.
There are higher welfare alternatives for pig farming.
Higher welfare alternatives for pigs
Higher welfare alternatives to intensive pig farming already exist and are commercially successful.
Free-range sow and piglets
In the UK, pregnant sows are kept in groups and are often provided with straw for bedding, rooting and chewing. Around 40% of UK sows are kept free-range outdoors and farrow in huts on their range.
Higher welfare indoor systems
Pigs are kept in groups on solid floors with straw or other material for bedding and rooting.
Although there is no access to the outdoors, there is greater opportunity for natural behaviour, free movement within the pen or shed, less crowding, conflict, boredom and tail-biting. Deep bedded systems allow foraging and comfort.
Sows may still give birth in farrowing crates, but in the better systems they give birth in huts or pens.
Sows are kept free-range outdoors with huts for shelter and for having piglets. There are no sow stalls or farrowing crates. The huts are provided with straw. At weaning, the piglets are taken indoors and reared in extensive or intensive conditions.
In these systems, sows have a higher quality of life and are able to act naturally by building nests, rooting, wallowing and foraging. The piglets benefit from the free-range conditions until they are weaned.
Piglets are born outside (without stalls or crates) and spend around half of their lives outside.
Whilst there is no legal definition of ‘free-range pork’, a voluntary industry code in the UK requires that free-range pigs have permanent access to pasture: born outside (without stalls or crates) and then reared outside throughout their lives.
Pig farming to higher welfare standards
Conditions on a free-range pig farm.
In the best free-range and organic pig farms, the sows and the growing pigs are kept outside for their entire lives.
The piglets stay with their mothers for longer (up to 6 to 8 weeks), mixing of unfamiliar pigs is reduced and tail-docking is not used. Pigs spend their lives more like they would naturally.
Alternatives to mutilations
Alternatives to tooth clipping
Breeding sows to produce smaller litters which they can feed properly can reduce injuries caused by fighting for teats. This can also reduce the number of piglets that will starve, provided the sow is properly fed.
Some breeds of sow have higher levels of fat and this can help them to maintain high levels of milk.
Keeping the sow in high welfare farrowing systems may also help. Research in Denmark found that sows in free-farrowing systems ate more food than those kept in crates and it was suggested that they were probably producing more milk. Piglets in the free-farrowing systems grew better and were heavier at weaning than those in crates.
This may explain why there are fewer injuries to the sow’s teats and piglets in systems with plenty of space and enrichment such as straw. European Union rules insist that environment and stocking density should be dealt with before resorting to teeth clipping.
Alternatives to castration
There are alternative options to castrating piglets which can vastly improve their welfare:
Rearing entire males
In some countries, such as the UK, Ireland and parts of Spain, Portugal and Greece, male piglets are not castrated but are slaughtered at a younger age (with a lower weight), lowering the risk of boar taint developing in the meat that can occur during puberty. In the Netherlands this approach is also being taken, with around 70% of males now reared entire.
While the pigs are slaughtered at a younger age, as they get close to slaughter weight some may develop mounting behaviour. As gilts are smaller than males they can often suffer lameness problems from injury during mounting, as well as skin lesions suffered by both males and females. It is therefore recommended that the males and females are separated to help reduce this risk.
People’s sensitivity to boar taint varies between nationalities and sexes and some argue that even those slaughtered at a younger age may have boar taint. Where this is an issue technology is being developed to detect the scent of boar taint on carcasses at the slaughterhouse. Alternatively a person sensitive to boar taint can be employed to use the human nose to detect the smell after singing a small area of meat while the carcass is on the line. However, countries currently do not agree of what is an acceptable level of ‘boar taint’ smell and the test is very subjective.
In some countries, a vaccination called Improvac is used as an alternative to surgical castration, by delaying the maturity of pigs. The vaccination cannot be found in the meat and is perfectly safe. It is not a hormone and should not be referred to as chemical castration which is when toxic chemicals are injected into the testes directly, causing pain and irreparable damage.
As well as stopping boar taint, it also reduces aggression and sexual behaviour in the pig. Reducing mounting behaviour improves the welfare of the pigs being mounted who are often not able to escape from it. Care needs to be taken though to minimise pain or stress to the pig while it is administered, as with any vaccination. It has been shown that the use of Improvac reduces the use of antibiotics and reduces piglet mortality by 1.5% (Colruyt Group) in comparison to surgical castration.
Farmers that use the vaccination report to have improved growth performance and also feel their working environment is safer as pigs are calmer and more predictable.
In the future it may be possible to select to breed from pigs which have lower levels of boar taint, and reduce the presence of the two main hormones responsible. This is a long term solution and would take 5 to 10 years to work, and aggression between the males would still need to be controlled.
An EU voluntary ban on castration for 2018
Public pressure has led to a voluntary declaration aimed at ending the surgical castration of pigs in Europe by 2018. As a first step, signatories will ensure that prolonged pain relief or anaesthetic is used for surgical castration of pigs from 2012. The countries currently signed up include Belgium, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands and Denmark.
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About the EU sow stall ban
The 2001 the EU agreed the Pigs Directive, laying down minimum standards for the protection of pigs, including the banning of the sow stall from 1 January 2013.
Buying pork and bacon
Buy free-range. If you can’t afford that look out for ‘outdoor bred' and 'outdoor reared' and buy British.
Compendium: the complete guide to pigs
Collection of resources about pigs and how they are farmed. Find out about the life of a sow from birth to slaughter, welfare issues and key statistics.