Is this a sick pig or hungry pig?

With a few basic observations, pig caretakers can quickly learn to identify sick pigs vs. hungry pigs and manage them accordingly

Is this a sick pig or hungry pig?
National Hog Farmer

Starting wean pigs is the most critical task in Wean-to-Finish production.  Pigs that start well quickly hit “cruise control” and unless interrupted by disease will experience rapid growth and feed conversion all the way to marketing.  Unfortunately, the opposite is also true, pigs that don’t start well require increased caretaker attention and resources.  Hard starting groups fight us all the way through marketing with poor growth, feed conversion and mortality.  The adage “Take care of the pig and the pig will take care of you” certainly holds up when executing wean pig startups. 

One of the most common challenges I identify in troubleshooting hard starting wean pigs is a misidentification of sick pigs vs. hungry pigs.  Medications are tremendously beneficial to sick pigs but provide no calories to hungry pigs!  Incorrectly identification of the root cause results in an incorrect intervention applied to the pig.  Caretakers quickly become frustrated with the lack of intervention success and inevitably, caretaker motivation and morale suffers.  We’ve all been there – we’re working our tails off, but our efforts aren’t giving us the desired results.  With a few basic observations, our caretakers can quickly learn to identify sick pigs vs. hungry pigs and manage them accordingly.  The improved outcomes immediately result in improved caretaker engagement, improved pig performance, a healthier pig barn and a healthier producer bottom line.

Step 1:  Observe and assess each pig individually every day for the first 14 days post-weaning.  This is the most critical time to find hard starting pigs, and we must evaluate every pig every day to be successful. 

Step 2:  Identify and treat sick pigs as they are found per the direction of your veterinarian.  Evaluate the pig for specific clinical signs of disease including:

Respiratory Disease:

  • Coughing

  • Thumping

  • Open mouth breathing

  • Depression

  • Scours:

    • Loose stool

    • Inflamed rectum

    • Feces staining the back legs

  • Lameness:

    • Unwilling or unable to stand

    • Non-weight bearing

    • Limping

    • Swollen joint or leg


  • Incoordination

  • Head tilt

  • Walking in circles

  • Paddling

Step 3:  Identify “fallback” pigs and pull them to a fresh pen to be restarted with other fallbacks.  Evaluate the pig for specific signs of falling out including:

Lost Body Condition:

  • Visible spine

  • Visible hip bones

  • Visible ribs

Gut Fill:

  • Sunken in flank

  • Lack of feed intake

    • Hold the pig upside down by the back legs, place your thumb over the pig’s back and your fingers over the pig’s abdomen squeezing your fingers toward your thump to evaluate Gut Fill

    • If your fingers can easily depress the abdomen, the pig is off feed

    • If the abdomen is full with resistance to squeezing, feed intake is adequate

Step 4:  Restart the fallback pigs, providing them additional nutrition and ensuring an appropriate environment.

Additional Nutrition:

  • Gruel feed multiple times per day

    • Provide no more gruel than the pigs will consume over a 30-60 minute time frame

    • Start with primarily water and transition to primarily feed over a 7 day period

  • Mat feed multiple times per day

    • Volume is less important than Frequency – Mat feed 6 times per day if at all possible

  • Check feeders daily and clean out as needed

    • Fallback pigs like to sleep in feeders which increases the frequency of feeder clogging

  • Electrolytes and plasma products

    • Consider plumbing your Fallback Pens to provide water soluble products independently from the general population

Appropriate Environment:

  • Keep fallback pens in the middle of your barn to avoid drafts and chilling

  • Ensure mat space is available to allow all pigs to lay on the mat(s) at the same time, no more than 1.5 pigs deep

  • Ensure brooders or heat lamps are positioned over the mats to create a micro-environment of 90 degrees Fahrenheit directly under the heat source

Force yourself to answer this question when evaluating challenged pigs, “Is this a sick pig or a hungry pig?”.  Use the specific criteria listed above to help make this determination.  You will find pigs that are both sick and hungry – treat them with a combination of the approaches listed above.  For hungry pigs that aren’t sick, stick to the basics of fallback management and watch them bloom even without medicinal therapy.  Employee engagement and pig performance will both improve if we correctly diagnose the root cause of hard starting pigs, allowing us to treat the root cause instead of the symptom.

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