The thought is repulsive, a pig eating her own babies, yikes! But, does it happen? Do sows eat their own piglets, if so, how often and why?
Sows will eat dead (stillborn or crushed) piglets, this is normal. Certain nervous sows will “savage” piglets, meaning attack live and otherwise healthy piglets, hurting them or killing them and sometimes eat them, which is called cannibalism.
It may sound crazy, but there are reasons why a happy, healthy sow behaving normally would eat a dead piglet.
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Sows will eat dead piglets
My sows will eat a dead piglet. One that was born dead or one that was crushed, it doesn’t matter to them. I’m not sure why this is, my best guess is to keep the area clean for the rest of the piglets.
It makes sense for the sow to eat dead piglets, if she were feral. Think of a sow farrowing on her own in the woods. The safe and, oddly, the sanitary thing to do is to eat the dead piglet.
She needs to keep the nest clean and the piglets safe, this means no poop or other gross stuff stays or gets put in the nest. Decomposing piglets would definitely be gross and attract pests and unwanted attention to the rest of the litter.
Dead piglets could have been stillborn or crushed
Sometimes piglets are born dead. This is unfortunate, of course, but it does happen. Once the piglets are all born and the afterbirth is expelled, the sow will eat the dead/stillborn piglet. This is the first reason why a sow would eat a piglet.
The second reason a sow would eat a piglet is that sometimes piglets are crushed by the sow. This is an accident, she was not behaving aggressively toward the piglet when it was killed. She was laying down and the piglet got flattened.
I realize that doesn’t make the result any different, but it’s important to me that it was not an aggressive action on the part of my sow. I wish it were different, but each of my sows tends to lay on one piglet per farrowing.
If you look again at the picture above, you can see how big Marta, the sow, is compared to the piglets when they are newborns.
Some sows will “savage” their piglets, meaning eat live piglets
There are, unfortunately, times when a particular sow will attack and hurt or kill her piglets. Most sows do not hurt their piglets, this is unusual.
Savaging piglets is unacceptable behavior from your sow and should result in her being culled.
‘Piglet savaging’ is the behavior that gilts or sows kill their piglets after birth, and has been categorized as cannibalism. The incidence of piglet savaging was reported as 0.3% in farrowing sows and gilts, with a higher frequency observed in gilts than in sowshttps://porkgateway.org/resource/normal-and-abnormal-behaviors-of-swine-under-productions-conditions/
It is relatively rare that sows savage their piglets
Sows and gilts eat their live piglets 0.3% of the time, that’s 1 piglet eating sow out of 333. That is not much aggressiveness toward piglets, overall, but a big problem for the owner of the one sow that is eating piglets.
If you do happen to have a sow that eats piglets, cull her. Why waste your time with a sow that is piglet aggressive? Sell her and get another sow that is worth keeping.
Keep sow calm and area quiet to lower sow stress
If you are concerned about your sow acting aggressively towards her piglets, do your best to keep her farrowing area as tranquil as practical and make sure you are feeding an appropriate level of protein in the feed.
It has also been show to reduce the likelihood of savaging piglets by keeping the lights on in the barn.
If she has a nice area and the right feed yet still kills piglets, get rid of her. Especially since, once a sow savages piglets she is more likely to do it again.
High strung sows unintentionally hurt piglets
A sow that is under a lot of stress or just one that overreacts will end up hurting piglets. While this is not actually savaging, it can result in hurt or dead piglets.
True, she didn’t attack them, but she did hurt or even kill them as a direct result of her aggressive actions. In this case the aggression is directed towards people, but the piglets bear the brunt of the problem either way.
Here’s a story about two reactive sows that we had. They were lovely sows to look at, but a mess to deal with.
When we were first married, my husband had a pair of white sows that were real lookers, but were a bit high strung, by that I mean overreactive.
As you came into the barn, they would whip around and face you, I assume to protect the piglets. The catch was when they whipped around, they would step on and injure, sometimes severely injure, a piglet or two.
There were only 12 or so piglets to begin with, so hurting one or two every time you show up reduces a good sized litter to a disappointing sized litter quickly.
Technically, these sows were not “savaging” their piglets, but, as far as results go, the end was the same. Those two killed more piglets than they raised, all because they were jumping at shadows.
We ended up culling these two. They were beautiful sows purchased with the intent of getting wonderful carcass quality and some higher producing genetics in the sow herd. That’s not what happened!
The crazy part about these two gals is this was their second or third litter and they were sweethearts before that. Easy going and great moms, but when they got revved up this time, that nice attitude went out the window!
Pork Gateway Normal and Abnormal Behaviors of Swine Under Production Conditions, quote on piglet savaging and figure of 0.3% for total amount of sow herd that savages piglets
NCSU Extension 2002 North Carolina Pork Conference, Management Tips to Reduce Pre Weaning Mortality, Dr. Donald C. Lay, Jr. USDA Perdue University