Curious and clever, pigs are certainly remarkable animals. Many Australians appear to agree, taking an interest in pig welfare by, for example, choosing to look for higher welfare pork products. But what does a pig actually need for higher welfare and a better quality of life? Here are a few interesting facts about pigs and their needs on farm.
Pigs need adequate housing with room to roam
Pigs love to forage and explore their environment, and having adequate space is important so that pigs can be active and express these natural behaviours. In Australia, pigs may be housed in intensive indoor, semi-indoor (outdoor-bred) or outdoor (free-range) farming systems. Intensive farming systems often keep pigs closely confined in barren environments, limiting their movement and ability to carry out natural behaviours, which can lead to pigs experiencing both physical and psychological stress.
While the majority of pork producers in Australia have voluntarily phased out the use of sow stalls, in intensive indoor housing systems, sows (mother pigs) are still commonly confined to farrowing crates just prior to giving birth and until her piglets are weaned. In farrowing crates, a sow is confined to a small pen unable to turn around, freely interact with her piglets or perform natural behaviours such as nest building.
For higher welfare, sows should be housed in appropriate groups, and when close to giving birth, moved to individual housing with nesting material where they can move freely, comfortably rest and nurse their piglets.
Pigs are intelligent and social
Pigs are very social, forming strong bonds with one another and becoming stressed when alone. For this reason, housing pigs in groups is a key factor in providing a positive environment for them. Being able to socially interact is important enrichment for pigs, and, just like us, each pig has unique personality traits, with some more vocal and rambunctious and others more laid-back in nature.
Social interaction, however, is just one of the enrichment provisions these intelligent creatures need. Pigs are incredibly clever and need a variety of stimulation to keep active, otherwise they can become bored and/or aggressive towards other pigs. For example, pigs enjoy foraging, and so it’s very important that they’re provided with the right materials to engage in this natural behaviour. Foraging materials need to have certain qualities to satisfy pigs – they need to be safe to ingest, destructible, manipulable, and chewable. New and different materials should be provided regularly to keep pigs interested and to make sure their foraging needs are being met.
Lastly, pigs enjoy playing. Play is important for piglet development and includes energetic running or hopping, social play, and play fighting. Even once they’re adults, pigs enjoy playing, with each other and with items such as straw or chewable toys.
Pigs are clean animals
Pigs like to keep themselves clean, and when given the option they will not soil the areas where they eat or sleep. They do however enjoy muddy wallows which they use to help regulate their body temperature in warmer weather and protect themselves from sunburn, flies, and external parasites. Wallows are an important provision for pigs reared outdoors and provide another form of social enrichment as pigs will often wallow in groups.
There’s a reason why we have the saying ‘as happy as a pig in mud’, because being able to wallow in mud is an important part of pig welfare.
What does the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme require for pigs?
Pig farms with the RSPCA Approved certification focus on providing for the pig’s welfare, with 322 requirements under the RSPCA’s Standard that must be met to achieve certification. RSPCA Approved pigs are raised with space to roam and move freely so they can exercise, socialise, and forage. Good quality bedding is provided so that all pigs have a comfortable area to rest and allows sows to build nests for their piglets.
Sow stalls, boar stalls, and farrowing crates are not permitted under the RSPCA Standard for pigs. Painful procedures such as teeth clipping, tail docking, and castration are also not allowed.
The RSPCA Standard for pigs takes into account the natural behaviours of pigs and ensures that housing and husbandry practices on farm enhance pig welfare. Achieving RSPCA Approved certification also means regular on-farm and abattoir assessments by specially trained RSPCA Assessors who visit farms twice a year and abattoirs annually to verify the Standard is being maintained.