Senior Care of Pot-belly Pigs

The average lifespan of potbellied pigs is approximately 10-15 years, with some pigs living into their 20s.  The quality of care a pig receives throughout its life has a great influence on longevity.  Pigs can be considered seniors at 10 years of age.  Senior pigs are a new phenomenon in this country since the first pot-bellied pigs were imported to the United States only about 25 years ago.  Agricultural swine medicine contributes greatly to our understanding of health and disease in pet pigs. Typically, hogs raised for food only live to about 3 years of age, so geriatric swine medicine is a new field.  Much of what is recommend comes from literature on geriatric people, dogs, and cats, and your veterinarian's own experienced with senior pigs.  The doctors at Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital have many years of experience caring for senior pet pigs, and helping them live long, healthy lives.  

Pigs’ teeth did not evolve to last as long as pet pigs today may live. The long, narrow anatomy of a pig’s mouth in combination with their often resistant behavior makes effective teeth brushing impractical. As a result, dental disease is extremely common and begins at a young age. Dental disease is noticeable on the incisors and tusks, but is much more common around the teeth in the back of the mouth, the premolars and molars. Over time, teeth often become abscessed. Abscessed teeth are very painful and can reduce the lifespan of your pig by shedding harmful bacteria and toxins into their bloodstream. Undiagnosed tooth problems can also lead to malnutrition due to an inability to chew properly, severe pain when chewing, and weight loss.

Dental disease may be diagnosed during a routine physical exam on a cooperative pig. Anesthesia is required for a thorough dental exam, cleaning, and removal of abscessed teeth. A dental cleaning involves ultrasonic and hand scaling to remove tartar from the teeth followed by polishing. Gums in and around the teeth may need cleaning.  If there are abscessed teeth, they may be removed. Many senior pigs are quiet and inactive for a day or two after anesthesia. They need to be encouraged to eat and forced to move around to maintain proper digestion. Antibiotics and pain-relieving drugs are frequently prescribed for two to three weeks after a dental procedure where abscessed teeth were found.  Most pigs, even very senior ones, do well with anesthesia. Anesthetics and pain-relieving drugs need to be tailored to your individual pig based on overall health and the past experiences of your veterinarian. An ongoing relationship with your veterinarian and blood testing prior to the procedure can minimize anesthetic risks and complications for your pig.

Older pigs often develop arthritis. Arthritis may be from an injury, obesity, overgrown hooves, infections, underlying medical conditions, or simply the result of aging. The good news is that there are many treatments available to help repair the damage in the joint and reduce pain and swelling associated with arthritis.

Glucosamine and chondroitin combinations, methlysulfonylmethane (MSM), and nutriceuticals like hyaluronic acid and Omega-3 fatty acids may help to repair or improve the cartilage and fluid in the joints, as well as reduce swelling. Glucosamine and MSM are over-the-counter supplements that can be used for mild cases. Cosequin (Nutramaxx Laboratories) is the preferred brand of glucosamine plus MSM supplement and is available online or at many feed stores.  A powdered version of Cosequin marketed for horses is apple-flavored, and can be quite palatable for pigs. Hyalon marketed for horses is available online, and red palm oil may be bought at health food stores or through hospitals such as HealX Sunshine Factor.

Non-steroidal anti inflammatory pain relieving medications (NSAIDs) are successfully used to reduce pain for many arthritic pigs. NSAIDs such as carprofen and meloxicam are prescription-only products you will need to get from your veterinarian. Do not give human pain medications to your pig as some may cause serious harm!  It is important to have your veterinarian perform blood testing before starting your pig on prescription pain medications.  This will help identify any underlying health problems that may be causing the arthritis and can ensure that the kidneys and liver are working well enough to give the medications. Blood testing should be performed at least twice a year in older pigs who are taking prescription pain medications. 

Pig hooves need to be inspected regularly throughout life to make sure they are not overgrown. Well-groomed hooves keep feet healthy, maximize activity, and reduce damage to joints. Aging pigs slow down and this may lead to overgrown hooves. As the hooves change, it shifts how the feet distribute the pig’s weight. It becomes difficult and painful to walk, which slows the pig down more. In a short period of time, overgrown hooves can cause arthritis and permanent joint damage.  Chronically overgrown hooves may lead to extremely painful conditions such as laminitis and hoof abscesses. Be proactive and make sure you pig’s feet get regular inspections and hoof trims. If you are not experienced in trimming your pig’s hooves, your veterinarian may likely offer this service.

A final factor that affects the longevity of your pig is its weight.  Overweight pigs are more prone to arthritis, heart disease, and many of the same problems that affect overweight and obese people. You can help your pig maintain a healthy weight by encouraging exercise and feeding the right diet. Simple tricks, such as scattering food for it to forage, and placing food in toys so that it has to work to get the food out, may stretch out the feeding time so that a pig has a chance to feel full with a smaller volume of food. Low calorie treats, like green leafy vegetables, should be offered instead of sugary or fat-filled snacks. You veterinarian can help you assess your pig’s body condition score and come up with a plan for weight loss if necessary.  The doctors at Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital have developed very successful weight loss plans for our pig patients, which have helped to significantly increase their health and longevity.

A wellness exam should be scheduled for older pigs every six months to a year, and routine blood testing should be performed at least once a year to help catch problems early. Older pigs may be prone to developing tumors or cancer so any concerns should be reported to your veterinarian in a timely manner.  Annual preventive dental cleaning may prevent severe dental disease.  Regular tusk trimming may be needed. Senior pigs must have their hooves inspected regularly and trimmed as needed.  Help your pig maintain a healthy weight with a proper diet and exercise.  Don’t forget that your veterinarian is your best resource for helping you keep your senior pig healthy for years to come.