This article could very well be titled: How to See More of Your Vet Than You Do Your Wife, Children and Friends.

The veterinary care of pigs at a sanctuary is radically different in virtually every way from the care of the “pet pig”. Please note that I said “different”, not better or worse…..just “different”. Providing for the health and medical needs of a single (or even several) pet pigs at home is certainly a challenge for the owner. Just finding a vet who is both competent and willing to undertake the medical needs of the average pet pig can be a daunting challenge in and of itself. For those of you who are lucky enough to be able to take your pet pig to the vet’s office for routine health issues, life is truly good. If conditions are such that you must find a vet to come to your house to work on your pet pig, life can become much more complicated. Not only do few vets make “house calls”, but there are only a limited number of procedures that can be done in the setting of the average pig owner’s home. Face it, most people don’t care to have their darling pig knocked out and castrated on the kitchen table. And even routine health chores such as hoof trimming, tusk work, etc…. can not only be stressful for the owner and the pig, but can often generate such a racket that the neighbors are calling the SWAT teams out because they are certain that mass murder is being committed in your home. To those of you who conscientiously see to the medical needs of your pet pig in a timely and competent manner, we doff our hats in respect. We know and understand how difficult and challenging it can be.

Those of us who care for large numbers of pigs face a unique set of challenges when it comes to the medical needs of the pigs entrusted to our care.

The most obvious difference is numbers. Sanctuaries typically house and care for between 20 and 300 pigs. The sheer volume of their medical needs can be overwhelming at times. Also keep in mind that many of the pigs that arrive at a sanctuary are injured, sick or suffering from years of neglect. Virtually every pig that arrives at a sanctuary will need some form of medical attention immediately. Some will obviously need more in-depth and more urgent care than others, but all will require at a minimum a veterinary check-up, vaccination, worming and probably hoof/tusk maintenance.

Individual pig owners typically have what is called a “closed herd”. If you have one (or several pigs) that are healthy, not in contact with other pigs or a host of other animals and are maintained in a healthy state, the risk of contracting a contagious disease is minimal. Sanctuaries must constantly be concerned about the risk of infection every time a new animal arrives. Therefore, the conscientious sanctuary quarantines all newly arrived pigs for a minimum of 30 days before allowing the pig to come in contact with other pigs. While this is a prudent measure it can also be difficult since it requires special, separate housing and specialized care during the quarantine period. Not only must the new pigs be physically separated, but people in contact with the newly arrived animals must ensure that they wash their hands and sometimes even change clothes after working with the quarantined pig so they don’t carry anything contagious from the quarantine area to the general population.

Finding a vet: If you think finding a competent vet to care for your pet pig is a challenge, try finding one when you have 100 pigs or more. A sanctuary vet not only has to be knowledgeable with respect to treating potbellies; he/she has to be responsive to the needs of a sanctuary and available 24 hours a day on a moment’s notice. We have found that farm vets generally are better suited for a sanctuary’s needs than the typical small animal vet with a clinical practice and only an office to work out of. Farm vets, by the nature of their business, are mobile, available, willing to roll out of bed at 3 AM for an emergency and are, generally, very adept and working on animals under adverse field conditions. They are also very resourceful vets and not averse to rolling around in the mud or snow with a sick or injured pigs. A lot of “regular” vets just don’t have that mindset or ability to work well under the conditions that a lot of sanctuaries have to work under.

Most good sanctuary vets work “with” and not “for” the sanctuary directors. Most sanctuaries do not have the luxury of being able to call a vet for every little “piggy boo-boo”. A sanctuary vet will expect the directors and caretakers to be able to perform many “routine” veterinary chores without having to call them. A good vet will also expect that the sanctuary directors will know when to call and when not to call. They expect that the directors can “triage” a pig and be able to tell the vet how urgent it is that he or she rearrange their schedule to see a sick or injured animal. They also expect that the sanctuary directors will be able to provide emergency care for a sick or injured pig until they can arrive. Finally, the vet will expect that the sanctuary directors will be competent at assisting with the treatment of the animal. When the vet arrives there is no standing around watching. Everyone pitches in to work on the animal(s) and that includes assisting with surgeries if needed. The sanctuary directors that “abuses” the vet by crying wolf too often will soon find themselves either broke or looking for a new vet in short order.

By the same token, most good sanctuary vets respect the knowledge that the directors have not only for the animals in their care, but for potbellies in general. The relationship between the vet and the directors is one of mutual respect and understanding and decisions are a consensus of what is best for the animal. With potbellies diagnosing a treating a sick or injured animal is very much an art rather than a science. With so little known about these unique little animals the vets often rely as much on the sanctuary directors’ knowledge as much as we rely on their medical knowledge. The result of this “team” approach to working on the pigs is a healthy and happy herd of pigs.

Things that sanctuaries are expected to be able to do without veterinary assistance:

-Routine vaccinations

-Wormings and general parasite control….including mange, hog lice, ticks, fleas, etc…..

-Routine hoof and tusk trimming. Most sanctuaries should be able to accomplish this on all but the largest and most disagreeable pigs where anesthesia is necessary to control and work on the animal

-Administer medicines…oral, injectable and topical. This includes being able to figure dosages based on weight and monitor the pig for side effects, allergic reactions, etc…..

-Have a sick or injured animal contained and ready for the vet to work on when he/she arrives. This includes having the ability to move a 400-pound pig from the woods or a pasture to a suitable location even if the pig is down and unable to move on its own.

-Remove sutures

-Give enemas

-Provide emergency medical care until the vet can arrive….this covers the gamut from stopping major blood loss, dealing with allergic reactions, inducing vomiting, providing respiratory assistance, treating for shock and assisting a sow with farrowing and neonatal support of piglets.

-Monitor and manage anesthetized pigs and provide post-operative follow-up care.

To adequately provide for the medical needs of large numbers of sanctuary pigs it is necessary that each pig be visually checked at least once, and preferably twice, each day. Additionally, each pig’s normal habits need to be well known to the directors so that anything out of the ordinary can be spotted quickly. With the potbellies, it is much better to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to dealing with medical emergencies. This is something that can only accomplished by spending a large amount of time with the animals, getting to know each animal and its habits on an intimate basis. Obviously one of the best times to do this is at feeding time. For most sanctuaries feeding time is much more than simply providing sustenance to each animal. It provides a good opportunity to physically check each animal closely and watch their behavior, eating habits and their physical condition. Sometimes subtle signs picked up at feeding time will provide information on one or more pigs that can be followed up after feeding or will highlight an animal that needs to be pulled from the herd or observed more closely during the day. It is an ongoing process that must be done both religiously and consistently. The sanctuary that short changes this process is asking for trouble in the long run and will probably have a disproportionate number of really sick pigs and a larger number of deaths than the sanctuary that dedicates the time and effort to ongoing monitoring of each animal entrusted to their care.

One final comment on the differences between the “pet pig” and the “sanctuary pig”. Most of us who spend our lives working with these wonderful little animals have developed a great deal of awe and respect for their hardiness, recuperative powers and their ability to survive in their natural environment without a lot of “pampering”. As a general comment, I don’t think that most sanctuary directors are as “panicky” about a lot of minor medical issues as is the average pet pig owner. Some of this obviously comes from years of experience in dealing with these pigs under less than ideal conditions. We use injectable anesthesia as a matter of routine because we have no other choice. The average pet pig owner is terrified of using anything but inhaled gas anesthesia on their pigs. This is a luxury that most sanctuaries can not afford, nor is it available as an option to us for 99% of the work we must do on the sanctuary animals.

In many cases we maintain a “wait and observe” attitude for many minor ailments and injuries that would send most pet pig owners screaming for a vet. Or we treat the animal ourselves, recognizing what we are capable of doing and what we are not. I would like to think that we, because of our knowledge and experience, have a better idea of when to call the vet and when to “wait and see” than most pet pig owners. This is said with absolutely no intention of denigrating any pet pig owner, but merely by way of explanation and observation of the many differences between the medical care of the pet pig versus the sanctuary pig.

We are proud to be associated with the Duchess Fund. We firmly believe in its goals and we urge all sanctuaries as well as individual pig owners to support it. As sanctuary directors we see more sick and injured pigs in the course of a month than many pet pig owners will ever see. We realize how little our vets and we truly know about these unique and wonderful little animals. It is only through the compilation of data from medical records and the results of necropsies that we will begin to build the data base we need to provide proper and adequate long term medical care, proper diets and healthy environments for the pigs. We need to know what makes them sick and what makes them well. We need to know what makes them live up to 20 years and what causes them to die prematurely. We need to know what is a healthy and unhealthy environment for a pig. There is so much we need to know and so little that we actually do know. The Duchess Fund provides a means to capture, catalog and share this information with pig lovers, pig owners and vets around the world.