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Disorders and Diseases of Potbellied Pigs

By

D. Bruce Lawhorn

, DVM, MS

Last full review/revision Jul 2020 | Content last modified Jul 2020
Topic Resources

Furnishing adequate housing, a good diet, and routine preventive care will minimize disease in potbellied pigs, as with any other animal.

Digestive Disorders

Digestive disorders in potbellied pigs may be caused by organisms such as bacteria or by problems caused by swallowing foreign objects or eating toxic substances.

Gastritis and Foreign Objects in the Digestive System

Potbellied pigs are omnivorous and, like small children, prone to swallowing anything they can get in their mouths. Plastic milk containers, toys, and even socks may be swallowed. This may be related to normal curiosity, boredom, or a seemingly insatiable appetite. The chance of your pig being hurt by swallowing an inedible object will be reduced by providing 2 or more small meals a day, including low-calorie foods (lettuce, cabbage, celery, carrots, or green grasses) in the diet, providing an outlet for innate rooting needs, and providing stimulating activities on a daily basis.

If the object swallowed is small enough and pliable enough, it may pass through the body without incident, cause only mild stomach inflammation, or require treatment with antibiotics. Larger or sharp objects may lodge in the throat, stomach, or intestines and cause vomiting, colic, or infection, which can be mild or serious. Your veterinarian will use x‑rays or other diagnostic tests to locate the foreign object and will check for infection and other signs of distress. Surgery is usually required to remove a large or sharp foreign object. In extreme cases, the damage to the body is so extensive that recovery is not possible. Following surgery, your potbellied pig will be given follow-up care such as fluids, nutritional supplements, antibiotics, and a tetanus shot or booster, if needed.

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Emergencies

Sign

Response

Depression, inactivity, high body temperature followed by a drop in body temperature; in direct sun or a warm to hot environment

These signs are likely caused by overheating. Use a fan to move air across the body. If in direct sun, provide shade. Wet head first with cool water for 10 to 15 minutes before wetting entire body surface for evaporative cooling. Do NOT apply cold water or ice because this can induce additional temperature shock. If possible, rest your pig on a cool (65°F to 75°F) surface. Monitor carefully and get veterinary help if recovery does not occur promptly with cooling. Overheating can be fatal.

Lameness

Potbellied pigs are prone to weaknesses of the limbs and lower back and can easily break bones. Look for evidence of bites or other injuries. Minor scrapes or abrasions may be cleaned with soap and water, followed by an antiseptic or antibiotic cream. Check for evidence of more serious problems. If you find cracked hooves or evidence of animal bites or if you do not find a problem, see your veterinarian for a prompt examination. Lameness accompanied by vocalization should be treated as a potential fracture and immediate veterinary care should be sought.

Extended straining to urinate or defecate

If your pig is having trouble urinating or defecating, this could be a sign of serious problems. Your pig may have swallowed a foreign object or have any of several serious medical problems. A prompt visit to the veterinarian is warranted. If a fresh sample of urine or feces is available, take that with you to the appointment.

Frequent urination, straining to urinate, and/or blood in the urine, especially with vocalization

A prompt veterinary examination can determine whether your pig has a serious urinary tract condition, such as a bladder inflammation (cystitis) or stones in the urinary tract (urolithiasis). Bring a fresh urine sample with your pig to the examination.

Colibacillosis

Colibacillosis (Escherichia coli diarrhea) is common in young potbellied pigs. It is caused by E. coli bacteria, which are found in feces and wastewater contamination from humans, other animals, birds, and fish. Piglets who have not received colostrum by nursing from their mothers in the first hours of life are much more likely to die from this disease. Older pigs develop resistance to colibacillosis. The principal sign is diarrhea. The disease is diagnosed through a medical history and testing of a fecal sample. Good sanitation helps prevent the disease. Commercial swine vaccines to prevent colibacillosis are available, but they must be given to the female potbellied pig before she delivers. The vaccine stimulates the mother's immune system to produce immune molecules in the milk. These molecules bathe the gut of nursing piglets and prevent the attachment of the E. coli bacteria to the piglets' intestines. Colibacillosis can be treated with appropriate antibiotics.

Salmonella Infections

Enterocolitis is an infection often caused by Salmonella typhimurium bacteria. Pigs can be infected at any age, but are usually infected after weaning. Sources of infection include waste food from overturned garbage cans, exposure to other pigs with the infection, and wastes from other animals. The signs include mild to severe diarrhea with mucus and blood in the feces. Fever, lethargy or weakness, and a bluish or purplish discoloration of the legs, ears, and jowls may also occur. Diagnosis is made by testing your pig’s feces for the bacteria. This test (bacterial culture) can also determine which antibiotics will be most effective; some Salmonella are resistant to antibiotics. Untreated pigs may die from the infection, so prompt veterinary treatment is important.

S choleraesuis bacteria may also cause infection. The signs are similar to those of S typhimurium infection. Early veterinary intervention and treatment is important because this infection can cause death.

All Salmonella infections should be treated carefully because the bacteria can easily infect humans. Be sure to wash hands carefully and thoroughly with soap and water, especially when disposing of waste materials. Children should not be exposed to pigs with any Salmonella infection because they can easily be infected.

Constipation

Constipation can be a problem for potbellied pigs and may result from ingestion of foreign objects, low water intake, or any of several diseases. The normal bowel movement of a potbellied pig consists of one main cylindrical fecal formation made up of multiple smaller fecal balls. This fecal construction is often confused with constipation. If you suspect that your pig is constipated, consult your veterinarian, who can examine your pet and make an evaluation. Take a fresh sample of feces to the appointment to make diagnosis easier.

Treatment for constipation depends on the cause. In simple cases, an increase in water intake may solve the problem. Encourage additional water consumption by flavoring the liquid with fruit juice or liquid gelatin. In other cases, mineral oil, a mild laxative, or other stool softener may be prescribed. However, you should never force mineral oil or other drugs down the throat of a potbellied pig. If the pig inhales the substance into its lungs, pneumonia can develop and can lead to death. Enemas may be more effective for some pigs. If the cause is a foreign object lodged in the intestines, surgery may be required. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions for treatment carefully. Regular exercise is often helpful in preventing or treating constipation.

Rectal Prolapse

This is a painful condition in which one or more layers of the rectum protrude through the anus. The prolapse may involve only one rectal membrane (incomplete prolapse) or all the layers of the rectum (complete prolapse). The condition is most frequently associated with prolonged straining to defecate. It is most common in young animals with severe diarrhea and some other lower intestinal tract conditions. Eating foreign objects may trigger this condition. Straining to urinate can also be accompanied by rectal prolapse, so obtaining a correct diagnosis is important. Your veterinarian can treat this condition surgically, and recovery is considered routine. Once your pig has had a rectal prolapse, the chances of it happening again are greater.

Bone and Muscle Disorders

It is common for potbellied pigs to have lower back, hindlimb, or forelimb weakness. Because of their conformation, potbellied pigs are susceptible to muscle pulls, ligament damage, and fractures of the back and leg bones.

Lameness

Lameness can be a sign that your pig has injured the affected leg or the back, especially if the lameness is accompanied by squealing or other vocalization. Pigs usually struggle against restraint and often need sedation for extended examinations, x‑ray imaging, hoof trimming, dental work, and other procedures to prevent them from becoming injured. Therefore, your veterinarian may need to sedate your pig while determining the cause of the lameness. Minor injuries, including muscle sprains and strained ligaments, are usually treated with anti-inflammatory drugs. Other medications may be necessary if anti-inflammatory drugs do not control the signs.

Fractures

Breaks in leg bones and back bones are common in potbellied pigs and require surgery. Implanted pins, screws, plates, and other devices can help restore motion and strengthen the affected bone(s). Providing an environment that does not encourage your pig to jump on furniture or higher surfaces is the best way to reduce the chance of broken bones. Stairs are a challenge for pigs, and providing ramps between the levels in your home is a good way to solve this problem.

Arthritis

Arthritis can affect potbellied pigs of any age. Lameness is the most common sign. The affected joint(s) may or may not show swelling. Arthritis may be caused by bacterial infection (infectious arthritis) or by changes related to inflammation, joint stress, or aging (degenerative arthritis). Early treatment is needed to prevent distortion of the involved joints. Antibiotics may be effective for cases of infectious arthritis. In other cases, anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the signs. Once the joints have been damaged, chronic lameness may occur and pain management may be required. Arthritis in multiple joints may result from bacterial infection of the navel after birth. If degenerative arthritis and joint fusion from chronic inflammation are present, then euthanasia may be the most humane option.

Overgrown or Cracked Hooves

If your potbellied pig does not get enough exercise on rough surfaces, the hooves may overgrow.

If your potbellied pig does not get enough exercise on rough surfaces, the hooves may overgrow.

A potbellied pig’s hooves continue to grow throughout its life. In the wild, hooves are worn down by exposure to rough surfaces. If your pig does not have access to rough surfaces such as concrete, then their hooves need routine annual trimming. Untrimmed hooves can damage leg bones and lead to hoof cracks. Cracks in hooves become infected easily and may require antiseptic cleaning and antibiotic medication to prevent more serious conditions.

Tetanus

Tetanus is a sudden, often fatal, infection caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria. Humans and other animals, including potbellied pigs, can be infected. The bacteria usually enter the body through a puncture wound, animal bite, open cut, or other injury. Signs include stiffness of the legs, muscle spasms, and muscle contractions. The best prevention is annual vaccination. Antitoxin and antibiotics following surgical or dental procedures may be used in unvaccinated animals.

Brain, Spinal Cord, and Nerve Disorders

Disorders of the nervous system in potbellied pigs may be caused by infection or by environmental problems such overheating or lack of water.

Bacterial Infection

Infections of the nervous system may be caused by several types of bacteria, including Streptococcus suis type 2, other Streptococcus species, Salmonella choleraesuis, Haemophilus parasuis, and Escherichia coli. These infections are most common during the first 6 months of life. Antibiotic treatment may be effective if started early, but death may occur before there are any signs of infection. Because S suis type 2 can also be passed to humans, care should be taken to avoid exposure when handling a potbellied pig with suspected nervous system disease. Wearing disposable gloves and avoiding accidental hand contact with eyes or mouth while handling pigs showing neurologic signs will help prevent human infection. Wash your hands with antibacterial soap immediately after handling sick pigs, even if you were wearing disposable gloves while handling them.

Signs of nervous system disease may include one or more of the following: fever, depression, lack of coordination, staggering, abnormal sitting or standing position (such as a dog-sitting position or holding a leg up like a bird dog on point), head tilt, circling, abnormal eye movements (eyes flicking from side to side or up and down), and seizures.

Overheating

Because potbellied pigs do not sweat, they are easily overheated when exposed to temperatures above 85°F (29°C), especially if the humidity is also high. Overheated pigs may be depressed, inactive, and unresponsive. If an overheated pig has a low rectal temperature (normal rectal temperature ranges from 99°F to 102°F) before any attempt has been made to cool the animal, there is little chance for survival. Overheating is often fatal, although some pigs will respond to treatment for cooling.

Salt Poisoning

Salt poisoning occurs after a pig has had no water for an extended time (36 hours or more) followed by sudden water consumption. Less commonly, it may be caused by eating large amounts of high-salt foods. It may be difficult to carefully monitor water consumption when water is provided in open bowls or other containers. Inactive pigs may not consume enough water to control salt concentrations in their bodies. Cool weather may also contribute to this problem for pigs housed outdoors. The signs of salt toxicity include seizures, walking aimlessly, blindness, or abnormal sitting or standing positions. If you notice any of these signs, you should seek immediate veterinary assistance. Treatment for salt toxicity includes gradual rehydration and medications to reduce brain swelling. In severe cases, brain damage may result in permanent blindness and a vegetative state. In most such cases, euthanasia is recommended.

Seizures

Some potbellied pigs develop seizures of unknown cause. Pigs less than 1 year old are most likely to have such seizures. The frequency of these seizures varies greatly. A pig may have only 1 or 2 seizures per month or as many as several each day. Pigs with only infrequent seizures may require no special medication. Animals with frequent seizures may be placed on medication to control the episodes. Some affected pigs may stop having seizures as they get older.

Lung and Airway Disorders

Young potbellied pigs are particularly susceptible to an infection of the upper respiratory system, atrophic rhinitis, that causes respiratory tract inflammation and discharge from the nose. Pneumonia can occur in potbellied pigs and is a serious condition because of the small lung capacity of these animals.

Atrophic Rhinitis

This infectious disease of younger pigs initially causes sneezing, a runny or bloody nose, tearing, and distortion of the nose or snout. It is most often caused by Bordetella bronchiseptica and/or Pasteurella multocida. It is usually transmitted from the mother to the piglet before weaning but can be transmitted from pig to pig after weaning. The more severe the rhinitis, the more likely it is that the pig’s nose or snout will be permanently distorted. This distortion may become more pronounced as the pig grows.

Bleeding from the nose, with or without a crooked snout, is a common sign of the disease. Early treatment with antibiotics is recommended for acute cases. For pigs with chronic nose bleeds, cooling the area with cold water and keeping the pig calm are helpful. For pigs in dry climates, increasing the humidity of the air can offer some relief. Vaccines are available for atrophic rhinitis, but they must be used in pregnant mothers and unweaned pigs to be most effective. Watch newborn piglets for sneezing, nasal discharge, and tears. If these signs appear, your veterinarian should be consulted for prompt treatment.

Pneumonia

Like humans, potbellied pigs can develop pneumonia, an infection of the lungs with signs that include coughing, fever, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. Young pigs are exposed to pneumonia-causing microorganisms from their mothers or littermates or from contact with other infected pigs. Pneumonia is a serious disease for potbellied pigs because they have a relatively small lung capacity. The disease is often caused by Mycoplasma hyopneumoniae, which damages the immune function of the lungs. This is frequently followed by a more serious infection with the bacteria Pasteurella multocida. Antibiotic treatment can control the infection and is especially important when a litter of young pigs is involved. Vaccines are available for some types of pneumonia, but their use is probably not required unless your pet is routinely exposed to other pigs.

Pneumonia caused by Actinobacillus pleuropneumoniae is very dangerous for potbellied pigs. It is transmitted by mothers to their piglets or by exposure to other swine that have the disease. Pigs that are infected with the disease become carriers, and they can pass the infection to other pigs even though they might not have any signs. Common signs of infection include coughing, fever, and lethargy. Sudden death is possible. Prompt treatment with appropriate antibiotics is required. Even with prompt treatment, recovered pigs usually have permanent tissue loss in the lungs and may have recurring respiratory problems. The best preventive step for this disease is vaccination. Commercial vaccines are readily available and should be included in your pig’s vaccination schedule.

Swine Influenza

Swine influenza causes viral pneumonia in pigs. Potbellied pigs can be exposed when they come into contact with other pig populations, such as at fairs, exhibitions, and petting zoos. Most infected potbellied pigs recover within a week or two. However, the infection can be fatal. Swine influenza is also contagious to humans. Wash your hands after handling pigs, especially pigs that seem to be ill or have a runny nose.

Skin Disorders

Skin disorders commonly seen in potbellied pigs include dry skin, infectious diseases caused by bacteria or other organisms, skin tumors, and sunburn.

Dry, Flaky Skin

Dry skin with itching that varies from mild to severe is seen in virtually all potbellied pigs. Bathing may worsen dry skin and can actually cause flaking if done too often. Instead, wipe the pig’s skin with a wet towel each week to remove the flakes. Moisturizing lotions (such as those containing aloe vera) may be applied. For some cases of dry, flaky skin, your veterinarian may recommend supplementing the diet with fatty acids, but these need to be used sparingly because the extra calories may lead to obesity.

Sarcoptic Mange

This skin disease is caused by mites, which are small parasites that live in the skin. The signs include intense itching, scratching, and skin sores. Affected pigs may attempt to lick the sores or rub them against a sharp or rough surface. Your veterinarian can test for the presence of mites and inject medication to kill the mites. A second injection a few weeks later is often required to completely rid your pig of mites. Because potbellied pigs can carry a small colony of mites without any signs, newly acquired pigs may be given a routine preventive injection of the medication during their first examination.

Skin Tumors

Skin tumors such as melanomas are commonly found in potbellied pigs and other swine. These tumors may be malignant and spread to other parts of the body. Your veterinarian should remove any suspected tumor and have it evaluated by a pathologist. Occasionally melanomas regress on their own, resulting in a loss of hair and skin color of the entire body. In these cases, normal pigmentation usually returns, and affected pigs usually live normal life spans.

Sunburn

Sunburn can develop in potbellied pigs exposed to sudden high-intensity sunlight. The sunburn may or may not be obvious. Sunburned pigs may be “down in the back legs” and can show weakness or minor paralysis in the hind limbs accompanied by squeals or other vocalizations. Pigs will recover from sunburn; however, you may want to have your veterinarian suggest an appropriate skin lotion to provide pain relief for your pet. If the pig is kept in an outside pen, it is important to ensure that the animal always has some shade available to reduce the chance of sunburn or heat stress.

Erysipelas

Diseases that can be Spread from Potbellied Pigs to Humans

  • Salmonellosis

  • Erysipelas

  • Streptococcal infections

  • Leptospirosis

  • Sarcoptic mange

  • Swine influenza

This disease is a bacterial infection caused by Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae. It is also sometimes called diamond skin disease because of the diamond-shaped patches of infected skin in some cases. Infection can cause red spots on the skin and the death of skin cells. More serious complications are arthritis, heart problems, and even death. Routine monitoring of your pig’s skin and overall condition is recommended to catch this disease early. If you notice skin color changes or sores, you should have your veterinarian check your pig for erysipelas. Treatment with antibiotics such as penicillin is usually effective. Annual vaccination is recommended to prevent this potentially fatal disease. People can be infected with these bacteria. Isolate your pig to prevent spread of the disease to members of the family.

Kidney and Urinary Tract Disorders

Cystitis is inflammation of the bladder. Urolithiasis is the formation of stones, called calculi, in any portion of the urinary tract. In potbellied pigs, calculi are usually found in the bladder and urethra. Calculi can be ;painful, cause problems with urination, and cause blood in the urine. Both cystitis and urolithiasis are common in male and female potbellied pigs.

Signs of both conditions include frequent urination or straining to urinate, especially with vocalization. A prompt veterinary examination can determine if your pig has either condition. Bringing a fresh urine sample with your pig for the examination can speed the diagnosis.

Antibiotics are the usual treatment for cystitis. Vaccination may help prevent possible kidney infection caused by Leptospira bacteria. Leptospira can be transmitted to humans, so care should taken when cleaning the area used by your pig for elimination (such as wearing disposable gloves), and thorough hand washing should follow any contact with your pig or its toys or food.

Urolithiasis is an emergency if calculi block the urinary tract, preventing the pig from urinating. Treatment usually involves sedating the pig and using x‑ray images or ultrasonography to determine whether the bladder is full, immediately relieving bladder pressure (if appropriate), and then removing the calculi.

Routine urinalysis should be included in your pig’s annual checkup. This can allow your veterinarian to catch these diseases early and prevent serious urinary tract disease.

Psychogenic Water Consumption

Pigs with this condition consume far more water than is required for normal body maintenance. Boredom may lead to psychogenic water consumption. Other causes of increased water consumption, such as cystitis or other urinary tract diseases, should also be checked. Your veterinarian can test your pig’s urine before and after a 12-hour water fast. Young pigs usually outgrow this condition. In some cases, water is restricted and offered only with meals. If this treatment is used, care must be taken to prevent salt poisoning.

Chronic Kidney Failure

Chronic kidney failure is a common cause of death in older potbellied pigs. Possible signs are lethargy, loss of appetite, and breath that smells like ammonia. Kidney failure can be diagnosed with blood and urine tests. Treating the signs (for example, by administering fluids) may temporarily help pigs with less severe disease.

For More Information

Also see professional content regarding disorders and diseases of potbellied pigs.

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