Improving Sow and Piglet Health

An article from Hypor covering uterine and udder health and feet/leg problems in sows and gilts, and joint-ill, greasy pig disease and scours (diarrhoea) in piglets.
calendar icon 12 August 2009
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Health of the Sow

The health of the sow and her piglets is of great importance in determining litter weaning weight and many aspects of health influence milk production, growth to weaning and consequently Weaning Capacity.

Potential disease problems are best controlled through preventative measures including vaccination, routine treatments and attention to the environmental and management components of disease. In addition, prompt recognition and treatment of disease will help to minimise productivity losses such as a reduction in weaning weight.

Sow and Gilt Health

The gilt starts her breeding life with a low level of immunity to many of the common diseases that she will encounter in later life. Acclimatisation and vaccination programmes must therefore be designed to develop immunity so that she is not faced with a disease challenge that could reduce performance. Similarly, a range of other preventative measures – such as biosecurity procedures, parasite treatment, rodent control and hygiene routines &ndash: assist in achieving a favourable health environment.

Although there is a range of health problems in sows that can lead to reduced feed intake during lactation and lighter weaning weights, there are three that are the most damaging:

Uterine infections

An infection of the uterus may occur immediately after farrowing if the causal organisms, which are commonly occurring environmental bacteria such as Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and E. coli, enter the reproductive tract. If this leads to the sow’s body temperature increasing above 40°C, she will be lethargic and appetite will be severely reduced, therefore prompt identification and treatment is essential. An infection will be seen as a heavy white or yellow discharge from the vulva, which may occasionally contain some blood. Immediately this is seen, the sow’s temperature should be monitored and, if elevated, antibiotic treatment given according to veterinary advice. Uterine infections may also be treated by giving prostaglandin by injection, which helps the lining of the uterus to recover and reduces the likelihood of problems with a discharge at or post service.

Where incidence of this problem is widespread, hygiene measures should be reviewed for room cleaning and those taken when assisting the sow It may also be necessary to carry out routine antibiotic treatment for a period prior to farrowing in severe cases.

Udder infections

Udder infections are caused by the same bacteria that result in uterine infections and these two conditions often occur together. The symptoms are also similar – raised temperature, lethargy and lack of appetite – and also include hardening and reddening of one or more glands in the udder. It is good practice to check the sow’s udder condition at farrowing, feeling for any hardness or increase in temperature, while observing for signs of inflammation. In addition to treatment of the condition using antibiotics and possibly steroids, as advised by the veterinarian, 0.5ml of oxytocin, administered every few hours, should also be given to assist milk let-down.

Prevention measures may include:

  • Improvements to hygiene procedures
  • Reducing feed level to 1.8kg (gilts) and 2.0kg (sows) for four to five days before farrowing
  • Ensuring water flow rate is adequate (minimum two litres/min)
  • Avoiding high temperatures and drafts in the farrowing room (ideally, 21 to 22°C at farrowing)

Rapid identification and treatment of udder problems helps to avoid damage to the udder that can render milk glands useless, thereby reducing the sow’s ability to wean large numbers of large piglets.

Feet and leg problems

Physical damage to the sow’s feet and legs, or foot infections, are common problems in many herds, which arise mainly during the breeding and gestation period. However, sows that enter the farrowing crate with injury or infection will be reluctant to stand up and eat and drink, resulting in reduced milk production. Therefore, early recognition is essential so that the problem can be resolved before the sow farrows. Infections will require antibiotic treatment, but lameness caused by physical damage requires the sow to be placed in a hospital pen, ideally with a solid floor and bedding, to recover. The sows’ health, including legs and feet, should always be checked when she enters the farrowing room, so that treatment can be given if necessary.

Piglet Health

As with sows, there are a wide range of infectious diseases that can affect piglets, most of which can be well controlled by preventive measures such as vaccination. Of these, the ones that are most likely to impact piglet growth are joint-ill, greasy pig disease and scours. Herd recording data from various countries suggests that scours is the largest single infectious cause of piglet deaths and undoubtedly, it also results in significant loss of growth in some herds.


Joint infections in piglets arise when bacteria enter the bloodstream through an injury to the feet, legs or the gums or tail (after teeth clipping and tail docking). The joint inflammation and swelling reduce mobility, leading to starvation or overlaying. Where the condition is widespread, piglet growth is also seriously affected. Rapid identification and antibiotic treatment is required. Where joint ill is a persistent problem the causes need to be rectified. These may be using the same implement for teeth clipping and tail docking, poor hygiene during piglet tasks or sharp edges on flooring or equipment.

Greasy pig disease

Similar to joint ill, the bacteria that cause greasy pig disease enter the skin through a wound or abrasion, often the facial wounds caused by the piglets’ milk teeth as they fight for a teat, or a knee abrasion. Usually, the resulting dark skin lesions remain small because the sow passes on immunity to the piglet but in some cases, large areas of skin will be affected, becoming crinkly or leathery and greasy to the touch. Antibiotic treatment is necessary and badly affected piglets may need to be given electrolytes to stop them dehydrating. Removal of the causes of abrasion or injury helps to prevent greasy pig, in the same way as for joint ill. Again, this disease will result in reduced piglet growth rate in its chronic form.

Piglet scours

Scouring, or diarrhoea, may be caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses and parasites, but the most common cause is pathogenic E. coli. Scouring results loss of growth and reduced weaning weights. Irrespective of the cause, rapid diagnosis and treatment, followed by preventive measures are required. Because of the wide range of possible organisms involved, laboratory diagnosis is essential, with an antibiotic sensitivity test, if appropriate. In addition to treatment, prevention of dehydration is necessary by providing an electrolyte solution for piglets to drink. Also, measures should be taken to reduce the spread of disease, including thorough pen cleaning and disinfection, use of separate tools for each room and disinfectant boot dips. Above all, piglets from affected litters should not be fostered to healthy litters. Measures to improve piglet comfort, such as provision of additional heat and ensuring floors are dry, should also be taken.

Once the situation is under control, the predisposing factors should be investigated, which may include reviewing the following:

  • Gilt acclimatisation procedures and resulting immunity
  • Vaccination programme (does the vaccine include the causal organism?), vaccination timing and technique
  • Colostrum management routines – piglet immunity
  • The piglets’ environment – low/variable temperatures and draughts are common causes of scour
  • Sow feeding policy – scours may be triggered by overfeeding prior to farrowing or in the first week of lactation
  • Routine hygiene procedures such as cleaning and disinfection.

Good sow and piglet health plays an important role in achieving high milk yield, rapid piglet growth and large piglets at weaning. Effective health management routines will not only lead to higher weaning weights but also help to maximise Weaning Capacity.

August 2009
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