We spent several days in a barn earlier this spring trying to help a farmer optimize his feeders.  His pigs were sick, and they were running the feeders poorly – namely, wasting feed and making a general mess of things. (Have you ever tried to make a toddler who didn’t feel well eat his dinner with proper table manners?)  Chad helped him make some adjustments to his feeder settings and water flow protocols to minimize wastage, but sick pigs are sick pigs and they just eat differently.  There is much debate in the media and foodie circles around the use of antibiotics in animals grown for food, but when pigs get sick, getting them healthy as soon as possible is key.

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Since I don’t have any actual experience raising pigs, I turned to some of my Twitter friends who do this day in and day out for further insight.  The first thing I noticed when chatting with them was how much they cared about their pigs.  Sure, raising pork is a big part of their livelihood, but the growers that we work with are also committed to good stockmanship, or animal husbandry.  They pay attention to how their animals are feeling and behaving, and respond accordingly.

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I asked what symptoms they watch out for, and the responses I got were pretty normal of illness – lack of appetite, listless behavior, watery eyes, vomiting or diarrhea, or labored breathing.  Sickness in pigs is not limited to pigs that live indoors – all animals, just like all people, can get sick.  E Coli, PRRS, respiratory issues – pigs can even catch a bladder infection.

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Preventative measures are taken to prevent illnesses, obviously – proper housing & ventilation, good nutrition, strategic vaccinations, vitamins or electrolytes, and good care by the farmer are all resources that help the animals stay healthy.

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When pigs do get sick, veterinarians are consulted for advice about antibiotic administration, and protocols are followed for tracking medications and dosages. Strict withdrawal periods are followed to meet federal standards to ensure that all the antibiotics have left the pig before it gets sent to market.  (Learn more.)

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When a specific pig is treated for an illness like strep or an injury, it may get sprayed with some paint to help identify it from the rest of its group so the farmer can keep an eye out for it.  Any pig with an open sore gets pulled from its group and placed in a special small pen for monitoring.

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With loose stools or something that affects a large number of pigs, treatment will be given through the water.  Generally a dosage is given for 3-5 days, depending on the particular medication and advisement of the veterinarian.  Antibiotics can be added to the feed for a few days, but water is more effective, since sick pigs keep drinking even when they lose their appetites (and play with their feed instead of eating it – see first paragraph).

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All hog farmers that sell meat to packers have to become certified in these procedures and protocols through a program called PQA+.  The Pork Quality Assurance Plus program was started by farmers in 1989 and has led the way in reinforcing good on-farm practices that help ensure animals are healthy, well cared for and produce safe food.

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Every time I talk to a farmer about caring for their pigs, I’m struck by both their passion for working with animals and their dedication to providing a safe, affordable food supply.  Keeping their pigs healthy, and helping them recover when they do get sick, is a high priority for everyone.

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Special thanks to Jennifer & Chris Campbell, Peggy Greenway and a few others for their willingness to answer my questions.