Hand Rearing Piglets
The reasons for hand rearing a piglet may be varied – too many piglets for a sow to rear, poor mothering by the sow, or even death of a sow. The time and commitment involved in hand rearing can be considerable, so it is not something that should be taken lightly!
The two most important factors in a baby piglet’s survival needs are an adequate supply of food and a suitable environmental temperature. A rescued baby piglet that has become hypothermic (low body temperature) must be warmed up before it can feed. The piglet should be submerged in warm water (about 35-40 degrees C) to help warm it up – washing the piglet at this stage also gets rid of any mud, blood or afterbirth still present. Dry the piglet off with a towel, then wrap in a towel and place on or beside a hot water bottle. For longer-term temperature control a heating pad is ideal, but if you don’t have one, an electric blanket wrapped around the outside of a cage is better than nothing. A heat lamp in a small pen is ideal. In an emergency if you don’t have a hot water bottle, use a plastic drink bottle filled with hot water but make sure it is wrapped in a towel so that it will not burn the piglet if there is direct contact. Leave the piglet to warm up for about 20 minutes or until it starts to really cry, then try feeding it.
Colostrum is important for piglets as it contains concentrated antibodies that help pass on immunity to infection. Ideally a piglet needs to have colostrum within the first 4 hours of birth, as after that the digestive system changes and is not able to absorb as much of the antibodies. It is possible to milk colostrum from a sow that has just farrowed and either use it immediately or store it frozen for emergencies.
For a really weak piglet, use an ‘eye dropper’ or a small syringe to trickle milk into its mouth and allow time for it to swallow. Stomach tubing can be done but needs the right equipment and a bit of experience to carry it out correctly.
For livelier piglets, the easiest to use is a lamb teat screwed onto a soft drink bottle. As piglets get older, they can be trained to use a ‘calfeteria’ type arrangement where they can feed ad-lib from a lidded bucket with goat teats.
When a piglet feeds off its mother it nudges the teat and udder to stimulate milk letdown. Once the milk is let down, the piglet will feed for 2 – 3 minutes at a time. Milk letdown can occur about every 15-20 minutes in a newly farrowed sow. Thus a newborn piglet may only receive as little as 3-4 mls every 20 minutes. When hand rearing a very young piglet it is important not to leave it too long without a feed. Usually it is advisable to feed about every 2 hours during the day, with 4 hourly feeds at night. Once past a week of age the time between feeds can gradually be extended out. By 4 weeks of age the piglet can be reduced to 4 feeds per day with access to pig pellets.
There is no easy way to wean a piglet – the piglet will protest, but if the piglet had its way it would never be weaned! Weaning should be done at about 6 weeks of age, and once on a good quality pig pellet the piglet should thrive.
There are a variety of milk mixtures that can be used for hand rearing piglets; it often comes down to personal choice depending on cost and convenience. I use a mixture of 1 litre of reduced fat milk (from the supermarket) with 1 egg yolk added. This is great in an emergency, but is also convenient and readily available. Alternatives are milk powder for babies, milk powder for calves, goat’s milk, and cows milk with the fat taken off. Do not use trim milk, as this doesn’t have enough fat for a balanced diet. Piglets are not tolerant of a lot of fat so can quickly develop diarrhoea if there is too much fat in the milk – even goats milk can cause diarrhoea if there is too much fat from the top of the milk. The milk mixture should be warmed to body heat before feeding with young piglets less than 2 weeks of age.
As piglets grow they can be very tough on teats because of their sharp teeth, so always have a back-up supply of teats in case they chew the ends off.