Common signs of illness in pigs and tips for treatment

The identification and prompt treatment of sick animals is a key part of ensuring high animal welfare for livestock producers.

Particularly for high-risk enterprises such as pig production, having the correct knowledge and confidence to do this is critical to keeping animals healthy and working towards meeting government targets for reducing antimicrobial usage.

Farmers Weekly spoke to Richard Bows, knowledge exchange manager at AHDB Pork, about the key areas to focus on when it comes to the safe use of medicine.

1. What are the five key signs of ill health in pigs?

Pigs are often seen grouped together, so often one of the very first signals that something is wrong is seeing a pig away from the main group.

Other key indicators include:

  • Lameness
  • Coughing or heavy breathing
  • Looseness of stools
  • Failing to eat and drink normally.

In the case of sows in a farrowing unit, eating and drinking – or lack of – are particularly important signals to watch for, as well as evidence of discharge from any orifice.

See also: 5 zinc oxide alternatives for pigs compared

Any of the above can be signs of certain viruses such porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS) or flu, and a new case of this can be potentially devastating for producers.

2. What are the main types of medicine used on farm?

Medicine can be administered in a variety of ways to pigs, including injection, topical, oral, in-water, via the rectum or via the vagina, and it’s important to be confident with all of these methods.

In terms of individual drugs, there are a wide range available to use, and the most appropriate choices should be determined through discussion with vets and by having a health plan in place which is strictly adhered to.

In order to meet antimicrobial reduction targets, of less than 99mg by 2020, antibiotics should be used only when deemed absolutely necessary.

If you are unsure about the best course of treatment, don’t be afraid to contact your vet – this is a much more effective approach than potentially wrongly treating an animal.

As well as vet input, AHDB offers local training for producers which is delivered by specialists to help improve both knowledge and confidence when it comes to medicine usage.

3. Are there any legal requirements for safe storage, use of veterinary medicines and recording medicine use (eMB) that I need to be aware of?

All Red Tractor farmers are required to record quarterly antibiotic information on the online pig electronic Medicine Book (eMB). The platform is a simple and effective way for farmers to comply with Red Tractor requirements for monitoring antibiotics, as well as enabling farms to go “paper-free”.

All medicines on farm need to be safely stored in a locked unit kept between 2C and 8C.

Any medicine used must be recorded and signed off by the person administering it, and that person should make a note of the type of drug, the amount used and the withdrawal period.

This will all be cross-checked by a vet during a quarterly visit to ensure it matches up with the total farm medicine usage.


There are also specific rules regarding who can administer medicine – for example, people with certain illnesses are not permitted to give some types of drugs, so it is important to make yourself aware of this.

If you are unsure about either the type of medicine to use or how to safely use it then contact your vet for additional on-farm training.

You can also enrol in Certificate of Confidence vet medicine training, which involves having some training on-farm and being assessed by an official assessor.

Even if you are a long-standing, experienced producer, medicine usage does change from time to time, so it is always worth investing in some refresher training when possible.

4. What do I need to know in terms of the correct injection methods?

It is important to have discussions with your vet in terms of physically demonstrating the correct injection methods, but in general, most vets and producers opt for the neck as the optimum injection site – mainly as there is more muscle found here than anywhere else on the body.

Using the correct needle size is also an important factor and stockmen need to be careful to ensure they match the pig size to the size of the needle used.

There are needle-less devices available now, but these are mainly for vaccinations rather than medicine treatments.

To prevent cross-contamination, needles should be disposed of after each treatment rather than using them on multiple animals.

5. When should recovery pens be used and how should I manage them on a day-to-day basis?

This will vary from farm to farm depending on the health programme in place, but as a rule of thumb, if the health of a pig – or pigs – is in any way compromised by being with its pen mates, then it should be removed and put into different accommodation.

The issue with recovery pens is that there is likely to be a combination of different ailments, meaning that even if a pig recovers from its original illness, it may still be a carrier of other bacteria.

Ideally, once an animal is put into a recovery unit, it should never enter the main herd again and should be kept separate until it is sent for slaughter.

On a day-to-day basis, stockmen need to ensure there is plenty of space available for the sick animal as well as good straw bedding, potentially a heat lamp, and that there is easy access to food and water.

If possible, recovery pens need to be an all-in, all-out system to prevent further health issues.

If medicinal treatment is needed, this should be issued regularly and using the most suitable drug for the problem.

Monitoring animals in recovery pens should be done at least once a day, depending on the severity of the illness, and keep in mind that some issues may mean pigs need extra assistance with feeding and drinking to prevent them becoming dehydrated.

If stock do not recover from a serious illness in a reasonable period of time (maximum of three days) then they need to be euthanised from a welfare point of view.