What every pet owner hates and every pig and pig owner hates even more is going to the vet. First understand that I am not a veterinarian and I am writing this from the standpoint of a pig owner with a lot of experience with his own pigs and with many rescue pigs. Through the rescue I also have a fairly close relationship with many veterinarians and sanctuaries and with club members and their experiences. I also have dealings with clubs and breeders throughout the country and their veterinary experiences.
Anyway, the general rule is that once a year your pig should see a veterinarian for a general exam and perhaps shots, hoof and tusk trimming, and teeth, ear and eye cleaning. How much is needed and how it is accomplished varies from pig to pig, vet to vet and owner to owner. There are many questions about vet care. Some of them are: Is your vet mobile (comes to your home) or office based (you go to them)? Does your vet use anesthetics (Isoflurane gas or injectable anesthetics), or do they restrain the pig (or do you restrain the pig)? Is your pig harness trained? Does your pig travel well? Does it ride in a vehicle uncrated or in a crate? Do you have a crate? Can you get your pig in a crate? Will the police come if you try and put your pig in a crate? What dangers could a visit with the vet pose to your pig? What dangers will not going to the vet pose to your pig?
The first question is, do you have a mobile vet in your area who knows about potbellied pigs and is willing to come to your home? If the answer is yes, does this vet have a portable Isoflurane unit? This may or may not be necessary, but for some procedures it is very important. What procedures can a mobile vet perform? Depends on the vet, the size, age and health of your pig and possibly on your ability to help with the procedures. First, be aware that if this animal is a dearly beloved member of the family, you are probably going to be uncomfortable with your pig being forcefully restrained for these procedures.
Pigs are Prey Animals
When they are grabbed and restrained forcefully, a part of their mind tells them that this is the end. What is the present advice to people being victimized by rapists or attackers … SCREAM AND FIGHT. That is what your pig is going to do when you try to force it to do something. Most of us have learned to talk to our pigs, bribe our pigs or somehow convince our pigs that what we want is really their idea. Some owners have so much trust built up with their pigs that hoof trimming, shots and even tusk trimming are not a problem. This is unusual, but some pigs cooperate with the procedures. Most pigs don’t.
If it is preferred to not use anesthetics and to work on the pig with it conscious, you must realize that forcefully restraining one of these animals can, in extreme cases, be fatal to the animal. It is even recommended not to do this with older animals. Restraining the animal and holding it should be done cleanly and forcefully. Grab the animal and lift its front legs off the ground by holding it under its front legs in the arm pit area, roll it onto its butt and hold it securely between your legs (you can sit on a SOLID chair, sofa or bench if you wish). Having a pig harness on the animal can help you maintain control, but chasing the pig around for 20 minutes or having it escape because you relaxed your hold to scratch your nose if going to just add to the stress for everyone. If you cannot help your vet with this, either get an experienced vet who can do it on their own (rare, but they exist) or opt for a vet with a portable Isoflurane unit (also rare). My wife and I have on occasion tried to help people hold their own pig to trim hooves only to have the owner suddenly let go of the pig because they couldn’t stand to hear it scream. The bigger and less social the pig, the harder this job becomes.
Also be aware that if an emergency occurs during these procedures a mobile vet will probably be limited in lifesaving procedures they can perform in your home as compared to a fully equipped veterinary office or an animal hospital.
If it is necessary to use anesthetic on your pig so that it will be asleep during the procedures, what type of anesthetic will be used? Every knowledgeable pig association, group or owner that I have dealt with in the last 10 years have concluded that the safest anesthetic is Isoflurane gas. There is a mix of injectables that is considered fairly safe if used properly, but it is not recommended. The problem with Isoflurane gas is that the pig must be willing to be held and hold still while a mask is placed over its snout for 1 or 2 minutes while it breaths the gas and falls asleep. All of our pigs are comfortable with this procedure. In fact, Chuckles seems to like it a little too well. We think he may be becoming an Isoflurane addict. Just say, “No!” Chuckles.
Some vets prefer to give a pre-shot of injectable anesthetic so that it is easier to administer the Isoflurane. This is not necessarily recommended by pig owner groups, but may be required if your pig is not able to be easily controlled by you or the vet so that the mask can be used. (See the article in Part II by Dr. George.) A mobile vet with or without Isoflurane should be able to give shots, trim hooves and clean eyes and ears. It will be noisy and ear plugs are recommended.
Tusks are a more delicate problem. Cutting tusks with the pig awake is how we lost our first pig, T.S. Piggliot. Other members have also had bad experiences with this. The only recommendation I could give on this is to use an OB cutting wire (available at most vet supply/feed stores) and cover the back of the mouth area (with a cloth) to keep the cut tusk from being inhaled into the lung by the screaming pig. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO CUT THE TUSK CLOSE TO THE GUM LINE WITH BOLT CUTTERS. The danger of the tusk splitting is far too great. If tusks are not an issue with you and you merely wish to blunt the tip that protrudes from the mouth, cutters or a file of some type may be appropriate.
Transporting Your Pig
If you are unable to find a mobile vet, often the case in more urban areas, you may be lucky enough to find an experienced vet who will see your pet pig at their office. The next problem is getting the pig to the vet’s office. Some pigs will jump right into a vehicle. Others will walk up a ramp. Some will easily get into a crate. Some will wear a harness and leash, and some won’t do any of the above. If you get the animal to the vets in your car without having it confined to a crate, can you control it once you get there? We have found that having the pig in a crate is preferable, but others just walk their pig in on a leash. If your pig is not leash trained and you need to use a crate, but your pig is not crate trained, HELP!
Fighting a pig in to a crate is usually a disaster. Bribing a pig into a crate only works once, but giving the pig nowhere else to go but into the crate is usually quiet and calm. First, make sure you have a big enough crate. Then make sure you have a vehicle that will hold the crate. The “700” or “Giant” size crate will be too high for many SUV’s and covered pickups. Try it before you get the pig loaded. Then make sure you have enough strong backs to lift it. One of these large crates weighs about 50 lbs. Add a full grown potbellied pig at 100 to 150 lbs. or more and you have a 2 to 3 person project. (I made a special roller dolly and an 8′ ramp with a rope and pulley assembly so my wife and I can load our boys.)
How do you make a pig want to enter a crate? We have discovered a few ways. The big secret is to set it up right the first time and don’t fail. Pigs tend to go forward. They can’t see behind them. A little prodding with a pig board (a 2’X3′ piece of plywood or even a garbage can lid) lightly tapped (not taped) on their behinds and used to block their vision if they try to turn will do wonders to guide them. Some of our members can guide a pig with a cane by tapping its shoulders on one side and then the other. The main thing to do is keep the pig and you CALM. No chasing, running or yelling.
Get the pig and the crate in a pen or area of the back yard (or house) that is fairly small and uncluttered. In our yard we have a 15′ walkway about two feet wide with a short fence on one side and a shed the other. We put the crate at one end and guide a pig in the other end with the pig board. Once he starts down the path with the pig board blocking his view behind, there’s no where to go but into the crate. We have also used exercise pens to corral the pig, and then placed the crate at the pen opening and folded up the exercise pen making it smaller and smaller with the crate being the only place left to go.
I can remember when we first started working with pigs. Chasing them, yelling, wrestling them into crates, and it never worked. It stressed us, and it stressed the pig. Be sure you have enough help, but also make sure that the helpers understand that this is not a roundup in the old west. We’re not trying to scare the pig, just guide it. If you have a major size pig that won’t fit in any crate, my wife’s idea to a member that worked excellently was as follows. The evening before this pig had to go to U.C. Davis for some serious vet work, she had them fill the back of a covered pickup (a van would also work) with straw or hay. They then got some neighbors and friends to hold boards, and corrals on either side of the pig and move along as the pig was prodded towards a ramp (a sheet of 3/4″ plywood with 2’X4′ reinforcing on the back) into the truck. The pig went into the truck, spent the night in the warm straw and left the next morning for U.C. Davis without ever even waking up.
Reprinted with permission from: California Potbellied Pig Association (CPPA) Pleasant Hill, CA 94523