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Who is the pig?

The domesticated pig is a subspecies of the wild boar. They are highly intelligent, sociable animals with an amazing sense of smell. They were originally native to Europe and parts of Asia but have, over the centuries, been introduced to many parts of the world.

In natural conditions, pigs live in small social groups, consisting of a few sows with their young. Sows are caring, gentle and dedicated mothers who spend their time foraging, rooting and nest building. Sows compete to establish hierarchies, but love spending time with each other.

In the wild, sows would normally continue to feed their piglets until they were around 13-17 weeks old, but the females would often stay together as adults. Male pigs disperse to find a mate and start their own family group. 

In commercial systems, domesticated pigs are divided between fattening/meat pigs and breeding sows, both with similar behavioural needs. Sows have an average lifespan of 20 years but in commercial settings are usually culled after 3 to 5 litters, meaning around 2-3 years of age.

Discover more about how to provide meat pigs and sows with a better quality of life below.

Providing meat pigs with a better quality of life

Top 10

Illustration of pig wearing chefs hat and cooking
Easy access to good food
and water
Illustration of pig exercising with dumbbell
Sufficient space to socialize, exercise and rest
Illustration sow in mud
Material to root around in
Illustration of pig sleeping under a blanket
Comfortable bedding
Illustration two sows in a pen
Opportunities to socialise with other pigs
Illustration of a happy pig
A life free from painful procedures
Illustration sow under shelter from sun
Sufficient light and shelter
Illustration of pig playing basketball
Ability to express their inquisitive and fun characteristics

Providing sows with a better quality of life

Illustration sow wearing chef hat and cooking
Easy access to good food
and water
Illustration pig exercising with dumbbell
Sufficient space to exercise and rest
Illustration sow in front of broken cage
No confinement in cages
Illustration sow in mud
Comfortable bedding
Illustration
Material for nest building and to root around in
Illustration sow socialising with other sows
Opportunity to care for their young
Illustration two sows in a pen
Opportunities to socialise with other sows
Illustration sow under shelter from sun
Sufficient light and shelter

Commercial pig production

Around 1.4 billion pigs are slaughtered annually for meat worldwide. The majority of these are in East Asia, particularly China, which rears around half of the world’s pigs. This is followed by the EU, North America, Vietnam and Brazil.

At least half of the world’s pigs are produced in intensive systems where sows are often confined in narrow crates, unable to move freely when they are pregnant and nursing their piglets. Even in the EU where a partial ban on sow stalls is in place (as sows should be in groups after the first 4 weeks of pregnancy), the average sow still spends around half of her life in a cage.

The piglets reared for meat are often mutilated without appropriate pain management and kept on concrete slats without bedding. Pigs also suffer during long distance transport for further fattening and slaughter.

Intensive Pig Farming

Intensive pig farming results in an increasing number of welfare problems for sows and meat pigs.

SOWS TEND TO BE:

  • Kept in individual sow stalls during part of their pregnancy, and farrowing crates to give birth and during lactation. Both stalls and crates restrict the sow’s movement so that she is only able to stand up and lie down; she is unable to turn around or walk more than one or two steps.
  • Kept in barren environments with no opportunity to root or build a nest.
  • Fed a small quantity of high nutrient-dense feed (during pregnancy) which, whilst satisfying her nutrient requirements, does not provide satiety – so she feels physical hunger.
  • Bred to produce large litters.

MEAT PIGS TEND TO BE:

  • Reared in barren, overcrowded environments usually with fully slatted flooring, without bedding.
  • Subjected to the routine mutilations of teeth-clipping, tail-docking, and castration.

Find out more below.

Key Issues - Sows

In much of the world it is common for a pregnant sow to be kept in a sow stall (also called a 'gestation crate') for the whole of her 16-week pregnancy.

A sow stall is a metal cage – usually with a bare concrete/slatted floor – which is so narrow that the sow cannot turn around, and she can only stand up and lie down with difficulty.

Sow stalls deprive pregnant sows of almost all natural behaviours; they cannot explore, exercise, forage or socialise which means they suffer from boredom and frustration.

Sow stalls also increase abnormal behaviour such as sham chewing and bar-biting, indicating severe frustration and stress, and sows in crates can exhibit behaviour likened to clinical depression.

Sow stalls are illegal in the UK, Norway and Sweden and phased out in Germany by 2030, and their use is limited in the EU, with a partial ban enforced from 2013. However, it is still permitted for sows to be kept in sow stalls from weaning of the previous litter until the end of the first 4 weeks of pregnancy.

Several producers are starting to phase out sow stalls voluntarily on animal welfare grounds, due to consumer pressure.

Shortly before she is due to give birth (referred to as ‘farrowing’), a sow is typically moved to a farrowing crate where she will stay until her piglets are weaned (often at only 21 days of age).

The farrowing crate is a narrow metal cage which restricts the sow’s movements and hinders her ability to interact with her piglets. Bars on the side of the crate give the piglets access to the sow’s teats to feed and prevents them from risk of crushing by keeping them away from the sow as she lies down.

Farrowing crates severely restrict the sow’s movement and her strong motivation to build a nest before giving birth. They also prevent the sow from being able to get away from her piglets, for example if they bite her teats. Piglets are weaned and taken away from their mother when they are 3 to 4 weeks old, and even earlier in some countries.

Within a couple of weeks of weaning, the sow is inseminated again (often artificially) and starts her next pregnancy. Commercial sows normally produce just over 2 litters a year with around 10-12 piglets per litter. She has a breeding lifetime of about 2-3 years before being sold for slaughter and replaced.

Farrowing crates have been banned in Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, and are being phased out in Germany and Austria, but are widely used in the rest of the world.

In intensive systems, sows are kept in barren environments with no opportunities to explore their environment, root around or build a nest.

Their strong maternal instinct to build a nest for their young has survived domestication and involves increased activity, such as searching for nesting materials, digging, and rooting out a shallow hollow, and constructing a suitable nest.

Their ability to fulfil these natural behaviours depends on their space allowance, the possibility of movement and access to suitable nesting materials - all of which are insufficient in farrowing crates which causes stress and frustration.

Feed is often restricted during pregnancy, causing chronic hunger, and increasing the frustration levels of pregnant sows.

In conventional feeding systems, pregnant sows are fed a concentrated diet made of 2-3kg of food a day, normally as one meal.

This provides little opportunity to ensure satiety and fulfil foraging needs, and leads to hunger which is associated with increased levels of aggression, physical activity, and the development of stereotypic behaviour (e.g. bar-chewing).

Sows are increasingly bred to be hyper prolific, to further increase the number of piglets born per litter. However, larger litters can lead to higher piglet mortality and can also compromise the welfare of the sow.

Litter sizes can be as large as 17 piglets and can cause pain and fatigue at the time of farrowing, as well as some piglets needing to be fostered by other nurse sows, breaking the mother-offspring bond.

Read more about free farrowing systems

Key Issues - Meat Pigs

Fattening pigs are bred for their meat and are generally housed in barren, overcrowded sheds, often on slatted/concrete floors, without any comfortable bedding or material to root around in such as straw.

They have no outdoor access, and their confined, barren conditions means they are unable to perform natural behaviours and become bored and frustrated.

In overcrowded environments, they are also unable to move away or hide from other pigs, so they tend to fight and bite each other, sometimes causing severe injury, particularly to their tails.

Most piglets have their tails docked to prevent tail lesions due to tail biting, which is a painful procedure and generally performed without pain relief.

Stress, illness and conflict leading to tail biting often result when piglets are mixed with unfamiliar young pigs, in environments that prevent natural behaviours, leading to boredom and frustration.

Routine tail docking in pigs is currently banned by EU legislation but a series of recent audits carried out by the European Commission to assess the implementation of the Pig Directive have highlighted that in almost all EU countries, over 90% of meat pigs are routinely tail docked.

Read more tail docking and tail biting

Soon after birth, the teeth of piglets are often clipped to reduce the risk of injuries caused by piglets biting each other, and their mother as they fight for the best teats.

Sows don’t always have enough milk to feed all their piglets, especially if they have large litters or their bodies are in poor condition.

Routine tooth resection, which includes teeth clipping as well as teeth grinding, is currently banned by the EU Pig Directive but it may still be practiced on a significant number of farms.

Read more tooth resection

Within a week of birth, many male piglets are surgically castrated (although not in the UK and Ireland), usually without appropriate anaesthetic or pain relief, causing short and long-term pain. It also leaves the piglets more prone to infection from the open wound with limited immunity at such a very young age.

The main reason piglets are castrated is to prevent “boar taint”. This is a smell or taste of pork, caused by the sexual hormones testosterone and androstenone. Males that are not castrated may also be aggressive and show more sexual behaviour. This may cause injury to others if they fight or mount each other and can be dangerous to farm workers if they are aggressive during handling.

In some countries, pigs are reared to a heavier weight so that certain cuts of meat or fat content may be produced. This means there is more risk of boar taint because the pigs reach puberty, as well as the welfare risk of them injuring each other. Where rearing entire males is not practicable, there are other alternatives to surgical castration, such as Improvac.

Read more about piglet castration and the alternatives to castration.

Pigs do not have sweat glands and are particularly susceptible to heat stress during transport and pre-slaughter. Significant numbers of pigs die each year in transport or in lairage at slaughterhouses due to stress.

In some slaughterhouses, pigs are pre-slaughter stunned using a mixture of CO2 at a high concentration which has been shown to be severely detrimental to pig welfare, as it causes a feeling of burning to the pigs’ lungs before they lose consciousness.

Higher welfare pig production

There are alternative commercial systems that improve the welfare of pigs by providing a cage-free and more enriched environment which allows for more freedom of movement and natural behaviours.

Click on the boxes below to find out more

Good housing

Good housing

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HIGHER WELFARE INDOOR

In these systems, pigs are kept in groups on solid floors with straw or other material for bedding and rooting. The space allowance per pig is higher than for systems with slatted floors (e.g. 1.5m2 for a 90kg pig on straw compared to 0.65m2 on slats). Although there is no outdoor access, there is more space for the pigs to move around and perform their natural behaviours, and aggression and the risk of tail biting are significantly reduced.

In some systems, sows are not confined throughout pregnancy and lactation, and can give birth in pens where they are able to perform nest building behaviour prior to farrowing and are better able to bond with their piglets.

OUTDOOR BRED AND OUTDOOR REARED

In these systems, which are typical in the UK, breeding sows are kept in groups outdoors with straw-bedded tents or huts for shelter. Sows farrow in individual huts and paddocks.

Sows have a better quality of life in these systems, as they are able to perform natural behaviours such as nest-building, rooting, wallowing, and foraging on the range. The piglets benefit from the free-range conditions for part of their lives, and it is common for them to be reared in higher welfare indoor systems once they are moved indoors for fattening.

To avoid potential confusion, the terms Outdoor Bred and Outdoor Reared must be accompanied by simple statements about the remainder of the production system. For example, Outdoor Reared and finished in straw-bedded barns.

FREE-RANGE

In the best, free-range and organic systems, both sows and meat pigs are kept outside for most of their lives, and some spend their entire lives outdoors on pasture.

Roughage, fodder, or silage is added to the daily ration in organic systems. The piglets stay with their mothers for longer (up to 6 to 8 weeks), mixing of unfamiliar pigs is reduced, and tail docking is not practiced (organic and some free-range).

The pigs benefit from reduced weaning stress, increased space allowance and reduced social stress and conflict. Both sows and meat pigs have good opportunities for expressing their natural behaviours when they are free to range outdoors.

Read more of our pig resources.

Better Welfare

Better Welfare

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ALTERNATIVES TO MUTILATIONS

Farming systems should be designed to fulfil the welfare needs of the animals rather than altering the animal - through physical or genetic mutilations - to fit a poor system. Mutilations can and should be avoided through better breeding, enriched environments, good management, and appropriate nutrition.

ALTERNATIVES TO TOOTH CLIPPING

Sows should be bred to produce smaller litters which they can feed properly to reduce injuries caused by fighting for teats. This can also reduce the number of piglets that will starve, provided the sow is properly fed.

Free farrowing systems may also help, as research in Denmark found that sows in these systems ate more food than those kept in crates and were probably producing more milk for their young. Piglets in free-farrowing systems grew better and were heavier at weaning than those in crates.

There are fewer injuries to the sow’s teats, and to other piglets, in systems with plenty of space and enrichment such as straw. European Union rules insist that environment and stocking density should be dealt with before resorting to teeth clipping.

ALTERNATIVES TO CASTRATION

Rearing entire males

In some countries, such as the UK, Ireland and parts of Spain, Portugal and Greece, male piglets are not castrated but are slaughtered at a younger age (with a lower weight), lowering the risk of boar taint in the meat that can occur during puberty.

Although the pigs are slaughtered at a younger age, as they get close to slaughter weight some may develop mounting behaviour. Gilts (young female pigs) are smaller than males and they can be injured during mounting, sometimes leading to lameness. Both males and females may also suffer from cuts and abrasions leading to skin lesions. It is therefore recommended that the males and females are separated to help reduce this risk.

People’s sensitivity to boar taint varies between nationalities and sexes and some argue that even pigs slaughtered at a younger age may have boar taint. Where this is an issue, technology is being developed to detect the scent of boar taint on carcasses at the slaughterhouse.

Vaccination

In some countries, a vaccination called Improvac is used as an alternative to surgical castration, by delaying the maturity of pigs. The vaccination is perfectly safe for consumers as no residue can be found in the meat. It is not a hormone and should not be referred to as chemical castration, which is when toxic chemicals are injected into the testes directly, causing pain and irreparable damage.

As well as stopping boar taint, the vaccination also improves welfare by reducing aggression and sexual behaviour such as mounting. Care needs to be taken to minimise pain or stress to the pig while it is administered, as with any vaccination. It has been shown that Improvac reduces the use of antibiotics and decreases piglet mortality by 1.5% (Colruyt Group) in comparison to surgical castration.

Farmers that use Improvac also report better growth performance and feel their working environment is safer as pigs are calmer and more predictable.

Supporting better pig production

Supporting better pig production

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To help drive the market forwards for improved welfare for pigs, companies should:

  • Introduce better welfare for sows
    • No confinement (sow stalls) during the dry period.
    • No confinement (farrowing crates) during lactation– you must have an active monitoring/development programme for lowering pre-weaning piglet mortality.
    • Provision of adequate manipulable material and bedding throughout life and for nesting behaviour prior to farrowing.
  • Introduce better welfare for meat pigs
    • No tail docking – you must have an active monitoring programme and contingency plan for the incidence of tail biting.
    • No teeth clipping/grinding – you must have an active monitoring programme to ensure low facial scarring and udder damage.
    • No surgical castration.
    • Provision of adequate manipulable material and bedding throughout life.
  • Adopt humane slaughter systems for pigs:
    • Actively press your suppliers, and give further encouragement to governments, to find humane alternatives to high concentration CO2 stunning, as a matter of urgency.
    • Support the call for new, humane systems to be developed and commercially available to replace the use of high concentrations of CO2 for the killing of pigs, by no later than 1st January 2024
    • Invest in more humane alternatives when they are commercially available.
  • Develop a strong roadmap to phase-in higher welfare systems for pigs and sows and report year-on-year progress against targets
  • Support producers by offering longer supplier contracts for stability and to encourage investment in higher welfare systems
  • Consider dedicated supply chains to have greater control and influence over the higher welfare standards adopted
  • Empower consumers to easily choose higher welfare pork products by adopting labelling to help differentiate your products (e.g. cage-free, indoor higher welfare)

Resources and Awards

If you want to know more about how to improve the welfare of sows and meat pigs, we have developed a range of resources to help you.

And if you have made a commitment to move to higher welfare pig production systems you may be eligible for an award.

Check out our Resources, or apply for a Good Pig Award below.

Resources

Explore our range of practical guidelines, videos, and case studies to help you improve the welfare of pigs in your supply chain.

Read more
1. Resources

Apply for a Good Pig Award

Since 2012, the Good Pig Award has recognised companies that use or have committed to use (within five years) higher welfare systems for sows and meat pigs.

 

Apply here
2. Apply for a Good Pig Award

GET IN TOUCH

Compassion will continue to work with industry to improve the welfare of sows and meat pigs through it's various corporate engagement programmes.

If you want more help or information, please contact the Food Business team.

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If you have any further questions regarding this, or any other matter, please get in touch with us at supporters@ciwf.org.uk. We aim to respond to all queries within two working days. However, due to the high volume of correspondence that we receive, it may occasionally take a little longer. Please do bear with us if this is the case. Alternatively, if your query is urgent, you can contact our Supporter Engagement Team on +44 (0)1483 521 953 (lines open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm).