MONITORING YOUR POTBELLIED PIG, WHY BOTHER? by: Chris Christensen with The Veterinarian’s View by : Dr. Lisle George

Why go to the vet for yearly exams?

General Exam: Just like us, pigs need a general check of their heart and lungs, and general condition.

Vaccinations: With younger pigs, it is probably a good idea to give them annual vaccinations. There are pig diseases out there that could kill or harm your animal and could be spread to other pigs. Older pigs (after 5 or 6 years) probably have their immunities built up. If you have a problem with mange or worms, you can give injectable Ivomec orally on a cracker every 3 months with probable success. It has worked in all cases I”m familiar with.

Rabies vaccinations are another problem. There are no rabies vaccines approved for pigs, so many vets won’t give them. Yet we have cases on record of pigs, who have bitten someone, being confiscated by authorities and killed so that their brains can be checked for rabies. Some vets give a rabies vaccine, but I don’t know if that would be recognized as sufficient by authorities.

Hoof Trimming: Very important. Pigs whose hooves are allowed to grow too long can develop serious leg problems. One of the pigs greatest problems is getting those spindly little legs to support that pot belly. Long hooves shift the weight back and break down the hoof and ankle structure. If the pig is overweight, it will, of course, increase the severity of this problem. This is a situation that many pig owners take care of without the help of a vet. You can try sprinkling food on concrete surfaces daily to help your pig wear down his hooves. Beware if the pig is only used to soft surfaces. This may be uncomfortable on the pigs legs and could possibly cause hoof cracking. Introduce this process slowly. You can also hold the pig and trim the hooves yourself with a cutter, file or even an electric dremmel tool. This will be stressful to both you and the pig. You may be able to slowly train your pig to let you trim his hooves when he’s laying down to get belly rubs or when he is eating. Just a little at a time and don’t force it.

Tusk Trimming: Some people just let the tusks grow. (You can tell by the scars on their legs.) Problems this can cause are the obvious ones of inadvertent or advertent injury to you or others (including other pets) from these built in weapons. They also may get caught in fencing, furniture, garden equipment, etc. causing injury or damage. The other problem is that tusks can curve back into the mouth or cheek area puncturing the skin. Blunting the tip of a tusk is not much of a problem but may involve you having to restrain the pig. Trimming the tusk down to the gum line is more involved. It should be done with an OB cutting wire and if the pig is awake, care must be taken to keep the tusk from being drawn into the lungs of the screaming animal.

Eye and Ear Cleaning: These cleaning tasks can usually be accomplished when the pig is at rest. Use of liquid ear cleaners has created problems with temporary (up to a month) loss of hearing resulting in some cases.

Teeth Cleaning: Preventing decay is desirable, but probably not essential.


Beware if you have multiple animals and one has been sedated. Keep the sedated animal away from the rest of the “herd” until it has fully recovered, plus an hour or so. Reintroducing a not fully recovered animal to the herd can cause a readjustment of the herd order (i.e. fighting). Always observe the herd after any animal is reintroduced and be prepared for possibly serious altercations. We have seen cases of serious injuries after animals have been reintroduced.

We also are starting to see a problem with older pigs (5 years or more) being given health checks. Extreme care must be taken if these pigs are sedated to keep the sedation as light as possible and for as little time as possible. Also restraining older pigs has led to stress related deaths. Those of you who have been paying attention are now asking, “If I can’t restrain them and I can’t sedate them, how do I treat them?” No easy answer. We plan to try and keep the hooves down on our animals by feeding on concrete and hoof trimming when they’ll allow it. We’re letting the tusks grow until they become a problem.

Vaccinations on our older pigs shouldn’t be needed unless rabies starts being required. Eyes and ears can be handled on a stress free basis. If tusk trimming or other needs make anesthetic the only choice, it will be Isoflurane at the lowest settings and for as short a time period as possible.

Isoflurane: Pigs are very sensitive to anesthetics and I have observed changes in the way Isoflurane gas is used over the past nine years that are significant. In the past settings of 5% to put the pig to sleep and 2.5% to 3% to keep it there were rather commonly used, and I suspect still are. When the pig is first put under with the gas the vaporizer should be set at no more than 3% and a full face mask is used until the pig goes to sleep. During this procedure the pig is usually on the floor in the lower half of his crate with the owner holding or restraining him. The pig is then placed on a table and the full face mask is replaced by the proper sized “cat mask” (looks like a sink plunger with the edges rolled in) which fits over the snout allowing access to the mouth area. At this time the Isoflurane setting should be reduced to 2.5% and then 1.5% to 2%. In this final range the pig may be slightly conscious. The goal is to try and keep the pig in the range right at the edge of being conscious. When procedures are over, the pig is returned to the crate. The Isoflurane is turned off, and oxygen is administered as the pig wakes up. There may be some slight reaction as the pig becomes fully conscious but nothing like what occurs when a pig comes up from injectable anesthetic.

Again anesthetics are not good for or entirely safe for any living thing, but high levels of stress (terror) aren’t either. Until we reach the point of communications with these animals that they truly trust everything we do to them, some form of stress or anesthetic will be required for just the simple procedures to keep them in good health.

I hope some of you find this information helpful or enlightening. This is a rather compressed version. It would take a small book to cover it in detail. If you need further information on some of the details or on where to get some of these supplies please contact me. If you have any corrections or additional information, please let me know. If you would let us know some information about the veterinarian you use, we will pass it on to others or publish it in the newsletter for our members. We are constantly hearing from members who need a veterinarian in their area, but we seldom have much information to share. We’re still learning about these precious creatures. We’ve had very little time to find out how to share our lives with a potbellied pig. I only hope we are doing what is best for them. They certainly do a lot for us. Chris Christensen

Dr. Lisle George of U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, one of the nations top experts on potbellied pigs, was kind enough to read my article and respond to it with some suggestion. We as a club have been very fortunate to have Dr. George’s professional support for both our personal animals and the hundreds of rescue animals that have passed through our foster pens. Without his support this club would have been out of business as a rescue organization years ago and without his dedication and knowledge our potbellied pigs would not have the level and quality of medical care that he and his graduates have provided. Dr. George is presently in the process of finishing a much needed veterinarian medical guide on potbellied pigs.

The Veterinarian’s View by: Dr. Lisle George

The article is excellent – thanks for writing it, Chris. I only disagree on one point, and it is only based upon a judgment that I’ve made by anesthetizing a lot of pigs using different techniques. My personal preference is to use 1 mg/kg of Telazol as a preanesthetic unless the pig is very tractable and is harness trained. In my opinion, the problems with Telazol stem for injection of the drug into the fat instead of the muscle. I insist that the pigs be given the drug with a 3.5 inch spinal needle inserted into the semimembranosus/semitendinosus muscles (hams). The needle must be inserted at least 2/3 of the length before the drug is injected. Standard 1.5 inch long needles deposit the drug into the fat, and that leads to recovery problems.

I feel that a single injection of Telazol is preferable to making an excited pig breathe into a mask containing a stinky gas. I get fewer scars on my stomach too because I have to hold the pigs while the gas is being delivered, and they are pretty good at filleting my hide with their back hooves. Gas administration takes 1 to 2 minutes, and I have had pigs stress out during that time. Much better, in my opinion, to give a quick shot and wait for the pig to go to sleep, than to allow the pig to struggle while inhaling gas.

I agree wholeheartedly that obese or old pigs should not be anesthetized if possible, although, in competent hands (our anesthesia service), we have had 100% survival rate in obese, sick and elderly pigs using Telazol followed by intubation and Isoflurane delivery. For foot trims and other procedures where we don’t want to anesthetize the pigs, we restrain them on our pig tilt table. The pigs are tilted onto their sides while being restrained in a squeeze chute. They can’t move, and don’t seem to struggle too much. I have restrained at least 2 dozen pigs that way, without mortality.

An Isoflurane setting of 5 on the vaporizer indicates that 5% of the inspired gasses are Isoflurane. In my opinion, a vaporizer setting >3% is too high, and represents an unnecessary risk factor. Pigs die from these high settings, and I have seen and been told of pigs that died of over doses of Isoflurane. I would never put the machine up that high. That doesn’t mean that all pigs die after inhaling gasses containing 5% Isoflurane, but the risk of apnea and cardiac fibrillation is much greater than if the vaporizer is set at 3%.

Reprinted With permission from California Potbellied Pig Association Pleasant Hill, CA 94523