Basic Vet Care of Pet Pigs

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Anatomy: Pigs have a pair of principal digits (the two main toes that they walk on) and a pair of accessory digits (“dewclaws”) per leg.

Frequency: A hoof trim is regularly required for all potbellied pigs. Pigs carry a large amount of weight on small feet, and their anatomy lends itself to the development of arthritis. Frequency of hoof trimming depends on several factors including the age of the pig, ability of the owner to trim the hooves at home, and the pig’s diet and environment. In addition, white hooves appear to be softer and wear more readily than black hooves. In general, a normal, healthy pig will require a hoof trim approximately once a year, beginning at 1-2 years of age. Frequency may increase with hoof deformities, cracking, or with the development of arthritis. Some owners may be able to provide hoof care at home while the pig receives a belly rub. In addition, rough surfaces in the pig’s environment (i.e. concrete or patio bricks in the feeding area) will greatly help wear the hooves.

Technique: A hoof trim can be performed with or without anesthesia. Many pigs tolerate a sling device (if available) and will readily allow a hoof trim while receiving treats. Some smaller pigs can be held across the lap while the trim is performed – usually provided that the pig’s attention is otherwise occupied with food. Using clippers (goat nippers, pony nippers, or pruning shears work well; appropriate nippers are available at, excess length should be removed from the main toes and dew claws to create short, rounded toes. The “quick” (blood supply) can be easily seen on white hooves but difficult to see with black hooves; if bleeding occurs, apply styptic powder or baking powder and pressure. Rough edges can be removed and the bottom surfaces of the main toes flattened using the grinding attachment for a Dremel tool or using a hoof rasp; some owners simply use a large emery board. Front hooves tend to require more trimming than rear hooves, being typically longer and thicker. Excessive hoof growth before and after trim (using nippers and a grinding Dremel tool)

Teeth (including tusks and trimming)

Anatomy: Pigs have more teeth than any other domestic pet, with 44 permanent teeth. The lower incisors (front teeth) are straight and project forward, while the shorter upper incisors are curved, with the center pair directed towards one another. The canine teeth (tusks) are also curved and deeply embedded within the jaw; it is important to note that the root of the embedded end of these canine teeth remains open to allow continued growth. The tusks of the male grow throughout life, while in the female, the embedded end remains open for about two years before a root develops and growth stops. The surfaces of the molars (back teeth) are irregular, bearing wavy ridges for crushing food. The pig cannot open the mouth as widely as other species (such as the dog or cat), and complete inspection of the mouth is difficult, even under anesthesia.

A piglet is born with 8 teeth called “needle teeth”; these “baby teeth” are located in the area of the tusks. In commercial pigs, these teeth are usually clipped to prevent damage to the teat of the sow or to littermates, and this practice is sometimes used by potbellied pig breeders as well. Baby teeth erupt until about 3 months of age, and permanent teeth are present by about 20 months.

Why trim tusks? All potbellied pigs have tusks, representing the upper and lower canine teeth on each side of the mouth. Tusk growth varies and may be affected by bloodline as well as hormones, but in general, boars have rapidly growing tusks, neutered males are next, followed by females. Tusk trims are recommended in males to prevent injury (accidental or otherwise) to humans and other animals as the tusks are the pig’s weapons and can become quite long and extremely sharp. In addition, tusks may cause household damage (to furniture and flooring) or may become caught on fencing. In general, intact males may require a tusk trim every 6-12 months, neutered males every 1-3 years, and females do not typically require a tusk trim. Many owners find the tusks to be an endearing feature of their pet and do not desire trimming. These owners should be warned of the potential dangers in order to make an informed decision about tusk trimming.

Technique: Sedation is often recommended for performing a tusk trim, although the “pig flip” technique can be used without the need for sedation. Long tusks are cut using obstetric wire (gigli wire) attached to saw wire handles. Crushing instruments such as bolt cutters or nippers are not recommended due to the risk of cracking the tooth, causing pain and possibly leading to infection and root abscess. Tusks should be cut on a line perpendicular to the tusk growth and well above the gums to avoid damage to this tissue; sharp edges can be filed using a grinding attachment for the Dremel tool.

Problems: Occasionally, abscesses of the tusk develop and are extremely difficult to treat. Older males tend to be affected, and these animals usually have one to multiple draining tracts and/or a mass of the jaw. Often, the abscess will drain and the swelling will resolve, only to recur later; antibiotic therapy improves the condition, but again, the problem recurs. As with a tooth root abscess in any animal, the offending tooth must be extracted, and the pig given antibiotics to treat the remaining infection.

Dental tartar can be severe in potbellied pigs but does not seem to be a problem for the pig. If the owner is concerned, the build-up can be easily removed with scraping instruments such as dental forceps or scalers. The role of dental disease in these animals is unclear.

Ears and Eyes

Ears: Potbellied pigs produce large amounts of brown, flaky to waxy, “ear goop” (resembling the dirty ears in a dog or cat with ear mites). This material is normal for a potbellied pig and can be removed with a piece of gauze or cotton ball (or a finger) if
desired, although cleaning is not necessary. Fluids should NOT be placed into a pig’s ear as is done with dogs or cats. Several pigs have developed temporary or permanent head tilts following attempted ear cleaning using solutions.

Eyes: Many pigs develop a red-brown material that drains from the eyes, especially obvious in white pigs. The eyes should be examined by a veterinarian for mechanical irritation (such as an inherited condition in which the eyelashes lay against the eyeball or foreign material such as a piece of straw or dirt), but often the underlying problem is not identified. Allergies possibly play a role. Gently wiping the discharge with a warm, wet washcloth is recommended.


Vaccination protocols vary, and there is no widely accepted standard for potbellied pigs. In other words, different veterinarians may recommend different vaccinations, but there is no right or wrong answer. Recommendations are based on criteria such as diseases common in the area, potential exposure of the pig, age of the pig, etc.

In North Carolina, minimum recommendations include vaccination against Erysipelas and possibly Leptospirosis. Rabies vaccine is not approved for pigs; however, it is likely protective for at-risk animals (i.e. outdoor pigs) and is suggested in areas where rabies is common (like North Carolina) or based on state regulations. Breeding animals should also receive vaccinations against Parvovirus and atrophic rhinitis (Bordetella and Pasteurella). In herd situations, such as a pig sanctuary, additional vaccinations may be needed.

Parasitism (Worms, Mites, Lice)

Internal Parasites: Many potbellied pigs are free of internal parasites and should remain so without exposure to other pigs. Fecal analysis should be performed periodically as part of the routine veterinary examination. Both injectable and oral dewormers (i.e. ivermectin) are suitable for treatment of internal parasites.

External Parasites: Sarcoptic mange is common in potbellied pigs and causes itching and thickened, scabby skin, especially on the ears and legs. A positive diagnosis can be made by the veterinarian using a skin scraping to look for the mite under the microscope; however, treatment may be given based on clinical signs even if no mites are found. All animals with exposure to an infected pig should also be treated, as this mite can infect other animals. Owners may suffer itchiness and a rash as well.

Chronic mange carriers also exist and may not show clinical signs, unless they become sick or stressed. Sarcoptes mites are often carried in the ears and are easily transmitted to other pigs. These mites are too small to be seen with the naked eye.

The pig louse, Hematopinus suis, may be easily identified on a potbellied pig. This parasite looks like a long, flattened tick and can be seen crawling over the body; the eggs or “nits” appear as tiny white dots that are firmly attached to the base of the hairs. Louse powder or topical liquid (i.e. permectrin) is an effective treatment. Pig lice do not infect humans or other animals, only other pigs.


Why Castrate? Pigs exhibit a libido before they are even weaned and are fertile by 3 months of age, with the potential to impregnate littermates. Owners generally do not have to be convinced of the need to castrate, as a sexually active pig exhibits obnoxious rooting, “kneading”, and mounting behavior and occasional aggression as well as having a strong, offensive odor (boars are very smelly!). Castration can be performed as early as 1-2 weeks of age, although the recommended age is >3 weeks if anesthesia is to be used. Castration at 8-12 weeks is standard.


Why Spay? Females not intended for breeding should be spayed for a variety of reasons. Although the risk of unwanted pregnancy may be slim for a single pet pig, spaying will alleviate some unacceptable behaviors such as aggression, rooting and mounting behavior, frequent & inappropriate urination (females “forget” they are housebroken when they go into heat), and the cyclic “moodiness” (PMS) that may occur every 21 days or so. Although this may not be a problem for some owners, particularly if the pig lives outdoors, it has recently been discovered that older, intact female pigs very often have significant problems with the uterus (such as tumors). There have been many reports of tumors that grow big enough (10, 40, or even 100lb tumors!) to cause death. Spaying is recommended between 3-6 months of age but can be performed as early as 6 weeks.


There are several commercial brands of feed formulated specifically for miniature/potbellied pigs. Examples include: Mazuri (Purina brand), Champion, Heartland, and Manna Pro. These feeds are formulated to meet the dietary needs of the pig and should not require additional supplements, although owners may insist on additives. If this is the case, roughage such as fresh vegetables and greens, with only occasional fruits can be given. Hay and grass grazing are also recommended. There are also several brands of potbellied pig treats available as well.

Never feed a pig ad lib – they do not have an “off” button. Pigs always appear hungry (especially to their owners) and are extremely food-motivated. On the other hand, do not restrict feed in an attempt to stunt growth. A potbellied pig’s size is genetically determined, and feed restriction will only result in a malnourished animal. Pigs easily gain weight, and obesity has historically been the number one health problem of the species, so food must be carefully rationed. General guidelines:
Young piglet: ½ cup per 15-20lbs per day.
Adult: 1 cup per 50-80lbs/day.
Roughage is a good idea, and pigs may be given hay or allowed to graze. This is not only beneficial to the GI tract, but provides “mental” well-being as well. Pigs in the wild spend the majority of their day foraging for food, and this practice will help stave off boredom. In addition, roughage provides “fill”, allowing the pig to be physically satiated.

If the owner insists on treats, try raisins or grapes, given individually (not by the box or bag!), a slice of apple or orange (not the whole fruit), or a few Cheerios. Suggest that the owner require a “trick” from the pig in exchange for this treat. This may be as simple as coming over when called. Ideally, no treats should be “free”. As with other species, feed to the appropriate body condition. This may not be an easy assessment in a pig, but guidelines include:

-Eyes should be clearly visible; they may be deep-set but should not be hidden by folds of skin. You should be able to tell the color of the pig’s eyes just by looking.

-There should be no deep folds or creases on the brow or cheeks.

– You should be able to feel the ribs but not see them.

-The belly may be big but should not drag the ground (exception: pregnant sow).

-The base of the tail should not be “dimpled” or have folds around it.

-The pig should lie down, rise, and walk around easily. Good body condition: “potbelly” present but hint of hip bone visible; no skin folds on face, eyes clearly visible, ears upright!


Fresh water should be available at all times. Pigs are messy drinkers and often play in their water or tip the bowl, so a bowl with a weighted bottom and/or wide base should be used. Many pigs prefer to move back and forth between their water and food bowls at feeding time. Once upon a time, there was a misconception among pig owners that water should be restricted during feeding – this is not true and water should never be restricted! Some pigs have difficulty swallowing dry pellets and may require water added directly to feed to prevent choking.

Water intake seems to decrease in winter, and obese pigs often have very low water consumption as well. Using warm water in the winter may encourage drinking. A few tablespoons of flavored juice (cranberry, orange, Gatorade) may also be added to
encourage drinking. As pigs tend to have individual flavor preferences, try a variety of juices.

Water for cooling: Pigs love the hot weather but do not have sufficient sweat glands to regulate body temperature. Outdoors, pigs require shade and a water source for cooling. A child’s wading pool is suitable for this purpose, although the sides may need to be cut down to accommodate the pig’s short legs. In addition, it may be helpful to provide flooring with traction, as the plastic is slippery. A section of outdoor carpeting, rubber mat, or appliqués used to provide traction in the bathtub may be used. There are also pools made specifically for potbellied pigs. These pools are rectangular and made of heavy duty, non-slip vinyl, with low, soft, padded sides. They are durable, portable, and easily cleaned; cost is $40-$60, and the pools can be obtained from Heartland Animal Health (access for the phone number as the pools are not listed on the website).

Common Problems

Obesity: Obesity is the number one problem in potbellied pigs. Available feeds may be limited and instructions are often vague. Pigs always seem hungry, adeptly train their owners to supply food on demand, and owners readily comply. Diet should consist of a miniature pig feed, and as the commercial diets are balanced, supplements are generally unnecessary. Treats should consist of vegetables or fruits and should be limited (i.e. a single grape makes an appropriate treat, not a whole apple). Grazing and hay are other possible additions.

Arthritis: Arthritis is extremely common in potbellied pigs and may ultimately represent the number one reason for euthanasia in older, otherwise healthy pigs. As in other animals with arthritis, affected pigs have difficulty rising, lameness/limping, and reduced activity levels. Some walk on their “knees”, others sink onto the haunches, tucking the hind legs way underneath them and lifting the front legs almost off of the ground. (A pig in this stance looks like it is constipated and trying to defecate.) They may become “stuck” in this position and fall to the side.

Treatment includes regular hoof trims, providing non-slip surfaces, providing bedding to prevent pigs from lying on cold or damp surfaces that might aggravate arthritis, glucosamine supplements, and pain relievers as needed.

A variety of glucosamine supplements are available, but an oral product added to the food is suggested and suitable for pigs of all ages. Pain relievers include carprofen (Rimadyl), etodolac (Etogesic), or ibuprofen and should be used as needed, under the supervision of the veterinarian. Side effects are similar for all such drugs and include GI upset, vomiting, and the rare-but-potentially-fatal bleeding stomach ulcer. Arthritis tends to get worse in cold, wet weather. Stairs should be avoided, and the pig should not be allowed to jump onto furniture or beds.

Erysipelas: Erysipleas is likely the most common infectious disease in North Carolina and is caused by a bacteria found in the soil. The pig will suddenly stop eating, become lethargic (just lays around), and will have a very high fever (>104-105° F). The disease can be fatal; however, immediate treatment is very effective and should include injectable penicillin over the course of the first several days. Fluid therapy may be needed to treat dehydration. Note: This disease has zoonotic potential (it can affect humans).

Dippity Pig (erythema multiforme): Dippity Pig tends to affect animals under the age of 2 years, although older individuals are sometimes affected. It appears to run in families and may occur only once or may happen multiple times. Owners report that the pig seems to lose control of the hind end and “dips” into a sitting position, then rises, takes a few steps and falls again into a sitting position. Often the pig cries as if distressed or in pain, and the problem may appear neurologic. Over the course of several hours, oozing skin sores may develop, usually along the back; these sores may be extremely painful. Usually, within about 24 hours, the problem resolves, and the pig returns to normal. Episodes are often initiated by a stressful event (i.e. visit to the vet, introduction of another pet or person to the household, transport, fight between two pigs, etc.). Treatment involves placing the pig in a low stress environment (i.e. alone in a warm, quiet, dim room with a pile of blankets or isolated in a stall with a pile of hay and a heat lamp). Various medications have been tried including antibiotics, steroids, and pain relievers, but the stress of giving these medications may not be worth it since the problem will go away on its own.

Sunburn: Pigs do get sunburned, and this can be quite severe. Potbellies enjoy the sun and will literally “bake” themselves, even if shade is available. Signs include reddening of exposed skin (especially ears), crusting and hardening of the skin, and discomfort/pain on touching the area. Application of sunscreen may be necessary.