Did you cry through Charlotte’s Web? Has your kid watched Babe one time too many? Did you happen to glimpse an adorable white piglet with a leopard print harness?
It happens. While most folks respond to “Let’s get a pet” by seeking out dogs, cats, or the random gerbil-like-fluffball, occasionally someone goes hog-wild.
And occasionally, the veterinarian sighs…
Ideally, pigs can make great pets. In a perfect world, the pot-bellied pig tops out around 60 lbs., is friendly, leash-trained, and housebroken – and makes adorable grunting noises.
Sadly, veterinarians who brave the wilds of swine medicine often encounter scenarios that step outside the ideal. Instead of writing SOME PIG in her web to save Wilbur, Charlotte would have felt compelled to inscribe WHAT THE HECK WERE YOU THINKING? and QUICK, GET THE LION TAMER above some of these porcine pets.
When the patient can legitimately be expected to have the Goodyear logo stamped on its side, a veterinarian can be forgiven for thinking perhaps something has gone awry.
Instead of hovering ethereally over a stadium like a modern-day angel of radial tires, the dirigible before me was shrieking in a manner more commonly associated with demons of the underworld. And I hadn’t touched him yet.
Sadly, this scenario is about as common to pot-bellied pig medicine as unfortunate personal disclosures are to senatorial campaigns.
“But pigs are intelligent, so they make great pets, right?” This syllogism is on a par with “Chocolate has antioxidants, so if I eat 5 lbs. a day I will lose 5 lbs. a day." Condition A – the intelligence of the pig or antioxidant property of chocolate - does not actually result in Condition B – the pig’s great pet-ness or the desired weight loss – without a significant amount of work. Just as consuming vats of chocolate can be counterproductive to weight loss, the intelligence of the pig can work against its ultimate suitability as a pet.
Yes, pigs are smart. That’s the problem. Human beings fare best with pets possessed of IQs just above that of the average zucchini. Dealing with anything smarter requires more time, patience, training and concentration than most of us are willing to devote to animal care.
Anyone who has dealt with a precocious toddler or an overly witty teenager knows that smart does not necessarily equal compliant.
Yes, pigs can be trained. However, setting conditions so that the pig wants to be trained is another matter entirely. A well-trained, passive pig can be a delight. I knew one pot-bellied pig who was qualified as a service animal and routinely visited children’s hospitals.
However, a restraint-resistant pig or a pig who has managed to train his human instead of the reverse is another matter entirely. These animals rapidly morph from favored child to schoolyard bully with fangs and glass-shattering super-sonic screams.
This latter pig personality, in addition to being less likely to heel, roll over, or fold your laundry, is also more likely to become obese, destructive, and have a shorter, lower quality life.
Most creatures have a natural and healthy aversion to restraint, but for most animals and humans, the key to the response is the degree of restraint. You want to hold my hand, cool. You break out the handcuffs, and unless we are verrrrry close, you’d better have a badge.
For some pigs degree has little to do with the perceived offense. They meet a harness, a full body hold, and even a pat on the back from a stranger with the same response – banshee screams, struggling, and mayhem.
As one might guess, this attitude can make even harness training, not to mention veterinary care, unpleasant, for both human and pig.
VeterinaryPartner.com has some great tips on selecting piglets for low levels of restraint resistance and for feeding and care. And from my pig practice pains, I can add a few more…
1. Soul search – Are you a permissive parent? Do you buy the candy bar at the first whine? If so, for your sake and the sake of piggy-kind, step away from the pig. You are not suited for pig parenting.
2. Set limits – As Dr. George points out in the pot-bellied pig manual, pigs only need to consume about 2% of their body weight daily. Unfortunately, the pig brain does not say, “Gee, coming up on 2% for today; guess I should quit eating.” Instead, the pig brain says, “WHAT? You’re only feeding 60 lb. me a measly 1.2 lbs. of food?? Are you trying to KILL me??” Officially, the pig brain hits the off-switch around 4% of body weight. Unofficially, I am not convinced that the porcine appetite has an off-switch. This means that your cute little pig will cry hunger until he is no longer a cute, little pig, but rather something resembling the giant, wild boars of fantasy novels and Peter Jackson films. You, the owner, will need to be the grown up who says, “No, you’ve had enough; go outside and play.”
3. Begin training and handling when the pig is young. Try to make experiences positive. NOTE: Positive is not the same as quitting when the pig becomes the slightest bit upset. Seek an expert in animal training and behavior if you lack experience in this area.
4. Be prepared for the smell. Pigs may be intelligent, cute, and have the ability to befriend magical spiders, but their poop does not smell like roses. And the smell tends to liiiiiiinnnngggggerrrr…
5. Pigs require maintenance. Sort of like finding a mechanic to work on a German automobile in the 1960s and 70s, finding a pig vet can be a challenge. You may consider your pig a house pet. However, most veterinarians who commonly treat house pets consider pigs to be livestock. Many livestock veterinarians do not have the equipment (or frankly the patience) to treat pet pigs. This can be a problem when Petunia needs her toenails trimmed (which she will) or it’s time to neuter Wilbur (trust me, you want to). Before seeking pig, seek pig doctor.
Diet, exercise, veterinary care, training, and socialization all work together to hone a masterpiece specimen of piggy kind.
However, it is important to be aware that the pig will do everything within his power to sabotage all of these processes. If these programs slip into permissiveness or neglect, the cute pot-bellied pig will mutate into Porky the Destroyer.
Fat, uncontrollable pigs are not happy pigs. They often become sick, arthritic, destructive, and dangerous. Probably the two most common reasons for pot-bellied pig euthanasia in our practice were severe arthritis from obesity or unmanageable, aggressive behavior. Both conditions can often be prevented through human self- (and pig-) discipline.
Don’t let your pig grow up to be the equivalent of a serial felon; instead, raise him to be a pig that a spider can be proud to champion.
August 13, 2013
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.