Pork production: Transmission of diseases between pigs and other animal stock

Question: Do pigs get diseases that can be transmitted to other livestock, such as sheep and goats?

The majority of pig diseases affect only pigs, and can’t be transmitted to other livestock. Even with diseases that occur in many species – sarcoptic mange or colibacillosis (E coli) for instance – the parasites or germs that cause the disease have the same name but within the species there are types that prefer pigs, or goats, or sheep, or dogs, or humans.

Transmission between different hosts is possible in the case of E coli, for example. There have been cases of calves developing the diarrhoea caused by an E coli strain that usually only causes diarrhoea in pigs after they’ve grazed on pasture fertilised with a lot of untreated pig manure; but this is unusual, even when there is contact between pigs and other livestock.

One exception is foot and mouth disease, which pigs transmit very readily to cattle, sheep and goats. Fortunately an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in a piggery in South Africa is extremely rare, though very serious.

Question: Do seasonal changes play a role in the health status of pigs?

The weather and the changing seasons can play an important role in the health status of pigs. They’re more sensitive to temperature than most kinds of livestock. Baby piglets – especially the modern white breeds that have very little hair when they are born – cannot control their body temperature by shivering, so they need help to keep warm.

Cold piglets won’t feed, become weak and are prone to infection. Older pigs, on the other hand, are very sensitive to heat and cannot lose heat by sweating; panting is often not enough to cool them down. Sows that are too hot may not provide enough milk to their piglets and may not come back on heat after the piglets have been weaned, or return to service because they have aborted the foetuses. This is called summer infertility. It’s important, therefore, to keep piglets warm in the farrowing area without overheating the sow.

This is managed by constructing a creep area (an upside-down box, for example, as long as it’s firmly fixed to the side of the pen) in which the piglets can go to sleep.

It should contain lots of deep bedding – straw or wood shavings – and, if you’re in an area that gets very cold in winter and you have a reliable electricity supply, it can be heated with an infra-red lamp suspended where neither sow nor piglets can get burnt.

If the pigs are exposed to draughts in winter, they could get pneumonia. This happens particularly in grower pens, which are often open to the elements. In any kind of barn where pigs are kept the temperature can be regulated in winter and summer by using sacking or plastic curtains that are rolled up when it’s hot, and dropped to keep out the cold. Even in simple pens there should be a covered and protected area where the pigs can shelter in bad weather. Providing shade for pigs in summer is important to prevent sunburn, heat stroke and abortions.

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