Diagnosing diseases disguised as feed problems

Several pathogens, such as mycoplasma or dysentery, might appear at first glance like feed or transition issues. Building a team of professionals will help spot the cause of the problem, and get it treated rapidly – and correctly.

6 Min Read
Diagnosing diseases disguised as feed problems

Improving pig performance and profitability is an ongoing balance of many different factors, including environment, health and nutrition. Properly assessing production problems requires a strong relationship between producer, nutritionist and veterinarian, particularly when it comes to diagnosing disease issues that may masquerade as feed issues.

“If you look at mycoplasma for example, a lot of times chronic pigs will be slab-sided, thin, railed out, and you may not have any cough with those pigs,” says veterinarian Matt Ackerman, owner of Pork Veterinary Solutions in New Palestine, Ind. “People will think they have a feed transition issue, but if we take temperatures and the temperature is elevated, then it’s an infection, not a feed or environmental issue.”

Ackerman consults with producers representing more than 70,000 sows across seven states. He encourages clients to go through a thorough diagnostic workup to best determine if there is an identifiable infectious process.

“Often times we see scouring, we’ll have diarrhea at different phases of production from nursery to finisher, and people will blame that on feed transitions,” he explains. “But as we look at those situations, we can find mycotoxins, salmonella, E.coli, ileitis, or even one of the swine enteric coronaviruses. Those can easily be missed in the nursery and finisher.”

Any of those causes of scouring can be a major concern. Ackerman says without sending in tissue samples and going through the diagnostic process, many disease issues will go undiagnosed or be misdiagnosed as transitional scours.

Another set of issues that might look like a feed issue but that could actually be caused by a pathogen are what Hubbard Feeds swine nutritionist Jamie Pietig describes as “pig vices.”

“Let’s say we have ear necrosis or tail biting,” he says. “Sometimes we assume that there’s some nutrient lacking in their diet, some deficiency, when pigs start to display these vices like biting, fighting or some type of ear necrosis, but sometimes that’s actually being caused by an infection that causes uneasiness in the pigs, increases their immune response and also increases the amount of aggression they show toward other pigs in the pen.”

Pietig stresses that producers should understand the necessary relationship of health and nutrition. In some cases, poor nutrition can lead to poor health, and in others, extremely healthy pigs can overshadow nutritional issues.

In considering types of disease issues that may present as feed-related, he also encourages producers to consider how pathogens may affect the pigs’ feet and legs.

“With any type of lameness, or feet and leg problems, this can be Mycoplasma hyorhinis, which is an infection in the joint fluid,” he says, “and that would look like a Vitamin D or mineral deficiency or even an incorrect dosage of phytase in the feed.”

Without further evaluation, Pietig warns that a producer might misdiagnose the problem as a feed issue, “because we associate feed with good conformation, but in reality it could very well be a disease issue.”

Iowa State University Extension swine veterinarian Chris Rademacher notes that several enteric diseases can be incorrectly passed off as transitional scours, to the detriment of both pig well-being and producer profitability. Often times these pathogens simply present at a time that coincides with a feed change or transition, leading to an incorrect assumption that the feed was at issue.

“More often than not, if we worked those up, it was due more to the time the infection occurred and not the feed,” Rademacher explains. “More likely it could be swine dysentery caused by a pathogenic strain like Brachyspira hyodysenteriae or even a milder strain like Brachyspira pilosicoli, and we could probably lump in Lawsonia intracellularis, otherwise known as ileitis.”

The logical assumption at the farm is that the diet change was the cause of the problem since the symptoms presented after the feed change, when in reality the problem turns out to be pathogenic. As pigs transition away from starter diets with easily digestible proteins to bulk diets with soybean meal, for example, loose pigs might simply be attributed to the change in feed when E.coli, Rota virus or Salmonella may be the true culprit.

Rademacher advises producers, veterinarians and nutritionists to consider the bigger picture before rushing to judgment.

“I always look at the attitude and condition of the animals,” he says. “Whether it’s the feed or a pathogen or an interaction between the two, if the pigs are loose but they’re in great condition, they’re still eating, the pigs are healthy, bright, alert and have a good attitude running around the pens, you use that to question how big the problem really is.”

In some cases, he explains, the disease in question may be fairly mild and may not present clinically sick animals, “but you get nervous that they could be affecting average daily gain and feed conversion.” With enteric diseases, Rademacher points out that one of the body’s defenses is to flush the pathogen out, taking water out of the body into the intestine, and that often times nutrients aren’t getting absorbed and properly utilized by the pig in these cases.

“So you’re costing yourself feed conversion and additional feed costs to get those animals to weight,” he says.

Both veterinarians and nutritionists agree that having a well-coordinated team of technical professionals is critical to the overall well-being of the pig, and to the farm’s economic success as well.

“These operations have gotten large enough that the veterinarian can’t get everywhere and talk with everyone in the operation frequently enough,” Ackerman explains. “I may only see some farms on a monthly or quarterly basis, while some of the nutritionists are out there weekly, so I reach out to them and ask what I might need to know, or what issues they’re seeing that I should be aware of.”

Ackerman says this is particularly useful in making sure everyone in the operation is on the same page.

“Sometimes the farmer will be out in the field, or there’s a disconnect between the owner and the production supervisor or farm manager so I want to make sure I’m on the same page with all of the key influencers in guiding the ship in the same direction,” he says. “That way if the nutritionist mentions something like scouring, then I can ask that question if it doesn’t come up in my conversations with the team, and we can tag-team and try different tweaks to the medication or ration to make sure things are going correctly.”

Pietig says that the best situations involve producers who form a team of industry professionals including a veterinarian and a nutritionist.

“The veterinarian-nutritionist-producer relationship needs to be pretty tight, and there has to be a lot of trust there,” he says. “For nutritionists, we tend to be more analytical and cost-driven, and it’s good to have the relationship with the vet so we have the connection to the production side. That balance is really important in providing the producer with a holistic view.”

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