Preventing Piglets’ Exposure to Diseases
Preventing piglets from encountering disease agents (primary prevention) involves five basic areas:
(1) source and handling of primary and replacement breeding stock
(2) rules governing movement of people, vehicles, materials, and pigs
(3) layout of the farm
(4) location of a new farm
(5) cleaning the farrowing quarters and the sow.
We recommend producers divert more resources to primary and secondary prevention techniques. Less emphasis should be placed on the less effective and more costly approach of using drugs and biologics to treat sick piglets. How much to divert and the response to expect will depend on the current status of the herd. A record program that can store the necessary information and allow data retrieval in a usable format is the basis of an effective health program.
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Baby Pig Infectious Diseases and Treatment Protocols
The most important aspects of maintaining the health of piglets is to ensure they receive as much colostrum as possible and that they have a warm, draft-free environment. Regardless, piglets will die of disease and the causes can be broadly classified as those occurring regularly (endemic) or only occasionally (epidemic). Although the causes will vary by farm, the typical endemic disease will cause problems continually and contribute to a low-level “normal” neonatal mortality of 5-15%. Colibacillosis and Coccidiosis are often endemic diseases. In contrast, a disease such as Transmissable Gastroenteritis can cause an epidemic of neonatal losses up to 100% and last for many weeks.
Diagnosis. Determining the cause of neonatal pig losses is not easy because few diseases produce signs that are unique to the causative agent. For example, baby pig scours can be caused by a bacteria, virus, or parasite and you cannot distinguish between them by the nature of the scours. Your veterinarian can assist you in obtaining a diagnosis and recommending treatment. It’s expensive and wasteful to begin treating if you’re unsure of the cause of the disease so it is important to obtain a diagnosis and treat accordingly. For the experienced observer, some diseases which occur regularly on the farm can be recognized by farm managers and treatment instituted as soon as the signs are recognized. However, if the piglets do not respond to treatment, then contact your veterinarian to reassess the situation and check the diagnosis.
Treatment. Appropriate treatment will vary depending on the cause of the disease. Provided the organisms are sensitive, antibiotics will usually alleviate a bacterial infection; however, antibiotics will not affect viruses or parasites. Sometimes antibiotics are recommended to help prevent secondary infection when the primary infection is a virus or parasite. In these cases, the antibiotics do not affect the organism causing the disease, they just help ensure that bacteria do not take advantage of the weakened piglet. Treatments for individual diseases are discussed below. Remember that all drugs must be administered according to label directions unless your veterinarian has directed you to do otherwise.
Commonly Seen in Unweaned Piglets (Listed Alphabetically)
Clostridial Infections. The disease is caused when Clostridium perfringens, which is a normal inhabitant in the large intestine, becomes established in the small intestine. This usually occurs when the piglet has had insufficient intake of colostrum. Its severity will vary dependent on the type, A, B, or C (the most severe), but piglets usually develop a foul smelling diarrhea and many will die. It is more commonly seen in piglets less than seven days old. Antitoxins can be injected into sows and piglets and oral ampicillin is commonly recommended.
Congenital Tremor. Most pork producers have seen newborn pigs with tremors and shaking muscles. It tends to come and go sporadically but seems to be more common in gilt herds, where 80% of litters can have affected piglets. The disease is associated with infections with Pseudorabies virus, Japanese Encephalomyelitis virus, Classical Swine Fever (Hog Cholera) and Circovirus. It is also associated with hereditary disease in Landrace and Saddleback breeds or with organophosphate poisoning. Affected piglets must be assisted to suckle and provided for until they grow out of the disease in a few weeks.
Greasy Pig Disease. (Exudative Dermatitis). Greasy pig disease is often a problem in newly established gilt herds. The causative bacterium, Staphylococcus hyicus, infects the skin of a piglet and produces a toxin that damages its liver and kidneys. A piglet is usually infected at, or soon after, birth. Lacerations on the side of the face, made by unclipped needle-teeth as piglets scramble for the best teat on the sows’ udders, are thought to be the site where the bacterium often first infects the piglet. The first clinical signs appear between 4 to 35 days when small dark spots appear on the side of the face. Then, brown scales develop on the underside of the piglet which, in serious cases, spread to cover the whole piglet. Severely affected piglets usually die and survivors do poorly. Affected herds can suffer decreased growth performance for 12 months. The disease is readily recognized by its typical appearance, and treatment is most successful when started as soon as signs appear. Before antibiotic treatment is started, affected live piglets should be submitted to a laboratory to determine the antibiotic sensitivity of Staphylococcus hyicus Greasy pig disease is difficult to control unless mange is first eliminated. The mange mites damage the skin and allow Staphylococcus hyicus to enter. Affected piglets should be given electrolytes orally because they become dehydrated rapidly. Some farms experiencing severe outbreaks have had success using an autogenous vaccine. The disease can be prevented by removing any sharp edges in the farrowing crate that may lacerate the piglets, cutting needle teeth, spraying the udder of the sow with an iodine based disinfectant, adopt an all-in/all out policy for the farrowing house and ensure the room is thoroughly disinfected and dry before sows enter.
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- Sometimes Seen in Unweaned Piglets
Eperythrozoonosis. (Epe). Epe is a difficult disease to both understand and treat. The causative rickettsial organism, Eperythrozoon suis, is present in the blood of sows in both healthy and diseased herds. In some piglets, it attaches itself to red blood cells and destroys them causing anemia. Affected piglets are weak, pale, and jaundiced, have scours and pneumonia, and suffer high mortality. Before attempting to treat for Epe, it is very important to have your veterinarian confirm the diagnosis. The response to drug treatment is poor and, at the time of writing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any drug for treating Epe. Eperythrozoon suis is spread by infected blood so, when attempting to control an epidemic, it is very important to clean and disinfect instruments between piglets when processing. Anything that can result in blood being transferred between piglets must be controlled including parasites, fighting, tagging, and injections.
Glasser’s Disease. Glasser’s Disease is caused by Hemophilus parasuis which is present in most herds. It has become more important in recent years with piglet mortality sometimes exceeding 50% in high-health status herds. The disease usually affects weaned pigs, but suckling piglets can be affected. Often the heaviest, best looking, piglets die. Pigs are fevered, depressed, slow to rise, lack appetite, and have swollen joints. Some have nervous signs such as tremors. Before they die, the skin often turns blue and the eyes are reddened. The organism is hard to grow so diagnosis is usually made solely on clinical signs and postmortem findings. Hemophilus parasuis is sensitive to a wide range of antibiotics including the penicillins, tetracyclines, and ceftiofur. It is best to start treatment as early as possible and a combination of injectable and water medication is usually indicated. In problem herds, autogenous vaccines can be useful.
Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS). PRRS is usually only seen in unweaned piglets when the disease first infects a naive herd. Piglets may cough, sneeze, and have diarrhea, conjunctivitis, and difficulty breathing. Signs in individual herds will vary because of the effects of different secondary infections. Individual piglets should be rehydrated and treated with antibiotics to control secondary infections. A herd control program should be formulated in conjunction with the attending veterinarian.
Tetanus. Tetanus is rare in piglets but sometimes the causative bacterium, Clostridium tetani, will infect piglets when they are castrated. Because the incubation period is 1-10 weeks, signs are rarely seen until the pigs are at least two weeks old. Affected piglets are stiff, have an erect tail, and facial muscle spasms. For problem herds, an effective vaccine is available. Managers should review castration and other processing procedures to ensure they are using hygienic techniques.
- Rarely Seen in Unweaned Piglets
The diseases mentioned above are the main ones found in suckling piglets. Other diseases may rarely occur—when they do, it is usually associated with overwhelming infection in a naive herd. Those disease include: Mange, Mycoplasma pneumonia, Actinobacillosis suis, Brucellosis, Erysipelas, Leptospirosis, Parvovirus, and Influenza.
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Methods of Euthanasia for Baby Pigs
Euthanizing animals is an unpleasant but necessary part of livestock farming. Producers often have to euthanize piglets because they are sick and suffering with little-or-no chance of recovery. Some piglets should be euthanized because if left to live they become a source of infection for their pen or littermates. This situation is particularly important in the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) era when removing the poor-doing, PRRS- virus-carrying piglets is an important part of controlling the disease. In these and other similar situations, euthanasia is the humane and responsible solution.
Piglets should be euthanized by exposure to carbon dioxide or blunt mechanical trauma to the head. Electrocution is acceptable but it can be a human health safety hazard, and piglets must be processed one at a time making it very time consuming. Controlled drugs (e.g., barbiturates) are very effective but present major human health risks and should be used only by veterinarians.
Obtain a cylinder of carbon dioxide, a regulator, a 50-gallon trash can and a supply of plastic trash bags to fit the can. Take a trash bag and blow it up, like a balloon, with the carbon dioxide. This ensures that the bag is full of carbon dioxide. Place the bag in the trash can, add up to six piglets, and close the bag. The piglets will exhibit a physiologically induced short period of muscle spasms as they rapidly die from respiratory arrest. Leave the piglets for at least 15 minutes, then open the bag and check each piglet to ensure that it has died before disposing of it normally. Your veterinarian can show you how to check for a heart beat and the corneal reflex.
Blunt Mechanical Trauma
Place the piglet on the ground and apply a quick, firm blow with a blunt instrument, such as a hammer, to the piglet’s head. The point to aim for is where two imaginary lines, drawn from the base of each ear to the opposite eye, cross. Alternatively, hold the piglet by its hind legs and forcefully hit the piglet’s head against a hard surface such as concrete. Immediately repeat the above procedures procedures if there is any possibility that the animal is still alive.
Farm managers need to be sensitive to the aversion many people have to euthanizing animals and ensure they assign the task to someone who is comfortable with the job. Many people entering the pork industry nowadays do not have a farming background and are not accustomed to routine farming practices. If people are not comfortable with the task and they find no relief, their feelings can result in absenteeism, belligerence, or careless and callous handling of animals, and high staff turnover.
Creep feeding is recommended beginning at about 10 days of age for piglets weaned at three weeks of age and later. Sow milk yield typically plateaus at about 12-16 days of lactation indicating that sufficient nutrients will not be available thereafter to sustain maximal piglet growth. For piglets weaned at less than three weeks of age, the value of creep feed is questionable, because they often consume very little feed. If creep feed is offered, use techniques to ensure piglets consume the feed.
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Some management techniques that help improve creep feed intake are below.
Use the proper diet. The complexity of the diet is a big factor affecting success of creep feeding. Piglets will consume more of a diet that has several speciality ingredients (e.g., plasma proteins, whey, etc.) than a simpler one. A feed provided in a mini-pellet form is preferred as well. Therefore, use a diet specially made for creep feeding.
Have fresh water available. Piglets that have access to fresh water eat more feed than those who don’t. Special nipple waterers are available for piglets.
Keep the feed fresh. Piglets must be attracted to the feed, which means feed cannot smell like the surroundings. Offer limited amounts of feed to the piglets several times daily and store the feed in a facility or room separate from pigs. Remove stale or uneaten feed from the farrowing quarters daily.
Make the feed easily accessible. When introducing creep feed, sprinkle small quantities on the floor or in a shallow pan.
Where piglet flow management allows it, split weaning is a technique that can give slower growing piglets a boost just before weaning. The process involves weaning the heavier piglets in a litter a few days before weaning the smaller ones. This allows smaller piglets access to a larger milk supply with less competition. To ensure that smaller piglets in the litter will benefit from split weaning, wean the heaviest piglets three to five days early.
This technique may shorten the weaning-to-estrus interval in sows, especially in those left with just a few piglets for the last couple days of lactation. This may alter breeding schedules slightly.
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