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Savaging of Piglets (Cannibalism)

(347) This is a common condition in first litter gilts that may account for a 1 to 3% increase in piglet mortality.

It occurs from time to time in many mammalian species (including young women), when giving birth for the first time and is thought to be related, in part at least, to the major hormone changes that take place around parturition.

In the gilt a number of factors seem to predispose to it, including a harsh or alien environment, poor empathy between the gilts and the stockperson, nutritional deficiencies and the effect of being placed in total confinement for the first time. It may also be related to temperament and breeding. It seems to be more prevalent in some breeds than others. For example, it is more common in pure-bred large white gilts than Landrace or Duroc, possibly their overlapping ears reduce visibility.

Major outbreaks have been experienced in new gilt herds where large numbers of the pregnant animals have been reared in extensive straw yards. In such environments (100-150 animals) no pecking order develops and one animal sees another as its enemy. In one particular herd a dramatic reduction occurred when the gilts were moved from the yards to sow stalls for three weeks prior to farrowing. During this period the gilt learned to recognise another pig and become familiar with individual confinement. Sometimes a change of farrowing room attendants reduces the incidence.

Clinical signs

Offending gilts can often be identified by their nervousness and apprehension at the onset of farrowing. Such animals have a wild eyed look. A careful watching brief therefore should be taken.

Treatment

  • Try and identify potential gilts before farrowing.
  • Constant supervision is required to identify animals at the onset of farrowing. To make this more feasible, prostaglandin injections on the 113th day could be used on gilts, to give a more predictable time of farrowing.
  • Watch all gilts carefully for the first 2 or 3 piglets and if there is any sign of savaging, inject with azaperone (stresnil) at a dose level of 1ml/12kg weight. All the piglets should be confined to the creep area away from the sow for at least 20 minutes following injection until she has settled down and rolled over on her side. The piglets should then be reintroduced. Most farrowings will continue normally thereafter.
  • Discuss with your veterinarian the possibility of treatment with mysoline. This medicine is available in tablets containing 250mg of a medicine called primidone which is an anti-convulsant medicine but has the effect of reducing hysteria and nervousness. 3 to 4 tablets may be given twice daily 24 to 48 hours prior to farrowing.
Management control and prevention
  • Assess the gilts when they come into farrow.
  • Try where ever possible to have a sow in a crate next to a gilt.
  • Give the gilt plenty of straw to eat pre-farrowing.
  • If there is a major problem hold the gilts in sow stalls for at least 7 days prior to entry into the farrowing crates.
  • Consider a different breeding female. Where there is a breed factor very often the savaging will progress into the second and sometimes even the third litter.
  • Document any savaging episode on the sow card so that this can be noted into the next litters.
  • Ensure that the farrowing houses are dimly lit, warm and comfortable and with no draughts.
  • Play background music during the farrowing period, talk to all the gilts, stroke them and develop a good empathy starting 3 to 4 weeks before farrowing.
  • With "the wild eyed gilt" test her reaction to a two week old pig placed in the pen before farrowing.
  • Cut the top off a rubber boot and fasten this over the mouth of the gilt, using a retaining string fastened behind the ears.
  • Try introducing a rabbit into the gilt farrowing pen for 48 hours prior to farrowing.

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