A preliminary report issued by researchers at the University of Newcastle and University of Bristol in England provides tips to help pig producers control the often serious, on-going welfare problems caused by pig tail biting.

Tackling pig tail biting

Described as a “useful starting point” to tackle this scourge,” the researchers advise pig farmers to:

  • Spray-mark suspected biters to help identify individuals.
  • Remove and treat bitten pigs as soon as possible to prevent the behavior pattern from extending to other pigs.
  • Put high-quality chewable objects in the pens to distract the pigs – and keep on adding objects once the initial outbreak is over.
  • Where straw is already provided, add to it regularly (daily or twice daily) to re-stimulate the pigs’ interest in the straw, rather than in each other.

This advice follows a three-year research project to develop and evaluate “husbandry advisory” tools to reduce the economic damage caused by tail biting and improve animal welfare. Results are still being analyzed and specific guidance is being drawn up for a final report, which is expected to be issued in 2012—and will be posted on the British Pig Executive website, www.bpex.org.uk.

The research involved 65 units from seven different pig producer groups, with each unit receiving between two and four visits during the research period.

Following detailed consultations with a range of industry experts, the researchers identified several risk factors, covering issues involving atmosphere and environment, health, transport and mixing, as well as feed and water and stocking density.

Studying different pen types

When visiting pig units, researchers completed a questionnaire covering these specific risks and combinations of risks found in different pen types. Unsurprisingly, the non-straw pens and those with straw had different types of risks – and they were modeled separately in this project.

It was found that in non-straw pens, tail biting was more likely when:

  • Temperature and humidity were high.
  • Pigs had previously been housed on straw.
  • Pen layout forced active pigs to walk through resting areas.
  • Objects provided for enrichment were fouled or dirty.

In pens with straw, tail biting was more common when:

  • The pen was cold – and especially when it was cold and damp.
  • There were large temperature variations between visits.
  • There were obvious draughts in the lying area.
  • Straw was of poor quality (dusty, or damp), or only a small amount of straw was provided.

Factors that encourage tail biting

Other “pig centric” factors that the researchers discovered coincided with the increased likelihood of tail biting included pigs with their tails tucked under their body, pigs with other lesions on the body or ears and  when pigs were agitated or restless, as well as existing tail lesions.

They also discovered that tail biting was more likely when there is a range of different tail lengths within a pen; for example, a range of docked tail lengths (by more than a third), or a mix of docked and undocked pigs. Where pigs had short-docked tails, with a quarter to a third of the tail remaining, ear biting lesions were more likely.

Dr Nina Taylor, a research assistant at the British Pig Executive, which part-funded the research project, along with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and pig producers, pointed out, the key is to do something as soon as possible before more tails are bitten and lesions became more severe with infections setting in. She also commented it is important to ensure something is done to distract the pigs before more of them develope the habit of biting tails. When dealing with an outbreak, it also is worth considering what triggered the behavior in that particular batch of pigs to help prevent it in the next batch.

“The key points to remember to control tail biting are: Identify and reduce risk; monitor carefully; react quickly,” she said.