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Effects of Free-range and Confined Housing on Joint Health of Fattening Pigs

11 November 2014

A new Swedish study reveals that the leg/joint problem, osteochondrosis, is more prevalent and severe in free-range fattening pigs than in those that were housed.

Free-range housing, in which pigs have access to both indoor and outdoor areas, is mandatory in organic pig production in Europe but little is known about the effects of this housing on joint health in pigs, according to the authors of a paper in BMC Veterinary Research recently. 

Pernille E. Etterlin of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, together with colleagues there and at the Swedish Animal Health Service, Swedish Veterinary Institute and Norwegian Institute for Nature Research explain that a high level of joint condemnations at slaughter has been reported in organic free-range pigs in Sweden, compared with pigs raised in conventional confined housing.

She and her co-authors hypothesised that biomechanical forces imposed on the joints of pigs that range freely promote the development of osteochondrosis and lead to joint condemnation.

They compared the prevalence of osteochondrosis and other joint lesions (e.g. arthritis, traumatic) in the elbow and hock joints of 91 crossbred Hampshire (Yorkshire × Landrace) fattening pigs that were housed in a free-range indoor/outdoor system with that in 45 pigs housed in confined indoor pens.

Compared to confined pigs, they found that a higher proportion of free-range had osteochondrosis in the elbow joints (69 versus 50 per cent; p<0.05), and a higher proportion of these joints in free-range pigs showed moderate or severe lesions (33 versus 16 per cent; p<0.05).

The free-range pigs also showed a higher prevalence of osteochondrosis in the hock joints (83 versus 62 per cent; p<0.05) and a larger proportion of these joints had moderate or severe lesions (69 versus 33 per cent; p<0.001).

At slaughter, 4.2 per cent of the free-range pigs had condemned joints, all of which showed severe osteochondrosis, while no joints of confined pigs were condemned.

In this experiment the prevalence of osteochondrosis in the elbow and the hock was higher, and lesions were more severe, in free-range than in confined pigs, suggesting that free-range housing increases the risk of acquiring osteochondrosis, concluded Etterlin and co-authors.

Increased biomechanical stress to vulnerable joint structures may be the mechanism behind this effect, they suggested, adding that more studies are needed to verify these results.

This study suggests that modification of housing, and breeding for joints that are more adapted to free-range movement may be needed in free-range pig production.

Severe osteochondrosis is a cause of joint condemnation but the condemnation rate at slaughter underestimates the actual frequency of joint lesions and hence is a poor assessment of joint health, added Etterlin and co-authors.


Etterlin P.E., B. Ytrehus, N. Lundeheim, E. Heldmer, J. Österberg and S. Ekman. 2014. Effects of free-range and confined housing on joint health in a herd of fattening pigs. BMC Veterinary Research. 10:208 doi:10.1186/s12917-014-0208-5

Further Reading

You can view the full report by clicking here.
For more information on osteochondrosis, click here.

November 2014

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