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Pets Large & Small

Please don't make me treat your pig

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM
Walkersville Vet Clinic

(11/2017) The clinic where I work is a mixed animal practice. While the majority of our patients are cats, dogs, and horses, we do treat cows, goats, sheep, and chickens. However, aside from health certificates for the fair and other, very basic care, we don't treat pigs. This isn't because we don't like pigs. Actually the pigs that I have seen have been very pleasant pets for their owners. It's just that it is very difficult to be up to date on the best treatments for all animals so most veterinarians tend to focus on just one or two species. In fact there are very few mixed animal practices anymore.

Our practice manages to stay current with multiple species because all of us are proficient in the usual species, but each of us also has some proficiency with a less common species. For example, I see some wildlife, in addition to my usual caseload of horses, dogs, cats, chickens, goats, sheep, and cows. Unfortunately, none of the vets in our practice have any extensive knowledge of the diseases of pigs.

Just as backyard poultry have gained in popularity, so have teacup/mini pigs. I now have a couple of clients who have potbelly and mini pigs and I always dread it when I'm out there treating their horses and they start to ask me about the pigs. It usually starts with "hey Doc. While you're here, can you look at my pig..." That quickly progresses to us chasing the pig around the enclosure and never actually catching it. At that point my brain usually thinks about the line from a James Herriot book about if your patient is well enough to run from you then he likely doesn't need to see the vet. While this isn't always true, in my experience, the sick ones do tend to be easier to catch.

One of my clients has a large horse farm. She also has a farm pig named Lady. Lady loves treats and food and my client's husband and kids enjoy feeding the pig. As the pig gained weight, rather than stop giving her treats, the kids just changed the pig's name from Lady to Lardy. Not only would Lardy beg for treats from the family, but she would also go into the horses' stalls and look for any bits of grain that the horses had dropped. She'd also learned that she could rub her body against the gatepost and knock the horses' treat bag off the post and then eat those as well.

One of the days that I was at the farm, the wife asked me to check Lady. She was concerned that Lady was going blind. While she used to walk around the horses when she was eating their food, she was now walking right under their legs. While the horses weren't stepping on Lady, she was very concerned that one might. Lady doesn't really like me. Ever since I cornered her in a stall to give her a rabies vaccine, Lady has started high pitched squealing whenever I get within 3 feet of her. I'd tried petting her on subsequent farm visits after the rabies vaccine, but the second I got close she started squealing like I was going to kill her so I stopped trying.

I knew that I was going to need to sedate Lady in order to see her eyes. If we just threw a horse blanket over her and restrained her for an exam, she would get so stressed out that she would start vomiting in between her deafening screams. My plan was to give Lady some food and as she was eating it inject her with some sedatives. Unfortunately pigs have very thick and tough skin. Ideally I would have wanted to use a small needle with the hope that she wouldn't notice the injection. However, in order to get the injection in I was going to have use a very large bore needle and there was going to be no sneaking. I just hoped that she loved food more than she hated me. Unfortunately even granola bars weren't tasty enough for her to let me get close to her.

We moved on to plan B. Plan B was to put sedatives into fig newtons and let Lady eat them. It wasn't my first plan as I prefer not to sedate pigs after they have eaten. If she were to throw up and yet was too sleepy to spit or swallow correctly, there was a risk of aspiration and subsequent pneumonia. After discussing the risk with Lady's owner's she decided to proceed with plan B. Half a container of fig newtons later, Lady was awake but mellow enough to allow us to examine her eyes.

Lady had become so fat that her eyelids were rolling over and obscuring her vision. The eyelids were also rolling in enough to cause mild abrasions on her cornea. This meant that not only was Lady going to need to either go on a diet or get an eyelid tuck, but she was also going to need ointment put in her eyes twice daily until her corneas healed. Lady's owner reassured me that Lady was much better behaved for her than she was for me and that she would be able to get the eyes treated. I left instructions with the owner, wished her luck, and told her to call me if she wasn't getting Lady successfully treated.

About 6 months later I was back at the farm to look at the horses. Lady heard my voice and quickly bolted out of the stall and ran away from me out of the barn. As she was running away I noted that she had lost a good bit of weight. Lady's owner told me that she bought Lady a harness and leash and they have been going on walks together every day. She also told me that she threatened her husband and kids with making them pay to take Lady to the specialty hospital for an eyelid lift if they continued to give her treats.

Even though I have been persuaded to treat minor ailments in pigs, please remember that we aren't pig veterinarians. I know it is convenient to have every animal and ailment cared for at the same time on the farm, but sometimes, we just can't do it. I'm happy to look at all of your animals while I am at your farm, but sometimes, your pig might need to see a real pig veterinarian. I can refer you to specialists at the University of Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, or NC State, as they can see pigs for all kinds of complex health problems. I do like your pig, even if your pig doesn't like me. I just want your pig to get the best care possible.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw