Giving pigs cotton ropes to chew on could offer UK pig producers a stress-free way to monitor their herd for costly diseases such as salmonella, according to new research.

Diagnosing infectious disease in pigs is currently expensive and laborious, as it involves taking blood samples and testing them in a laboratory. However, this could all change thanks to a three-year research project.

Initial results suggests oral fluid sampling could provide a low-cost, non-invasive method to assess the health status of pigs, says Lorna Dawson, a Bpex-sponsored PhD student.

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She has recently completed her three-year research project looking at a simpler way to monitor for disease.

“By collecting oral fluid samples I could screen more animals than was physically possible when carrying out blood sampling,” she explains.

Sample collection was performed by suspending a cotton rope over a pen for the pigs to chew, using methods initially established at Iowa State University.

Deposited oral fluid samples were then checked for specific disease markers such as viral RNA and antibodies, thus allowing the early diagnosis of specific diseases at the subclinical or clinical stage.

“This suggests that the use of oral fluid is potentially a feasible, low cost, non-invasive way to assess the disease status in pig populations,” says Ms Dawson.

“More importantly, this is a welfare-friendly means of monitoring disease, working towards better productivity and profitability.”

The primary aim of the research was to develop an oral fluid diagnostic test for the detection of European strains of porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus and salmonella infection in herds.

She says that further work is required before this technology can be put into full use across the industry. But she wants to highlight that the preliminary findings are really encouraging.

In the longer term the use of oral fluid diagnostics could provide a tool to benchmark herd health status and performance.