What To Expect With Surgery

Your potbellied pig may need surgery at some point in its life. It is important to be prepared for this event so you have a suitable set-up at home for your recovering pig.

Potbellied pigs are often spayed or neutered at an early age to make them more suitable household pets and to prevent diseases that can occur later in life, such as uterine tumors. Other surgeries may be needed to correct medical problems.  A piglet may need surgery to correct a small hole in the belly muscles (known as a hernia) that can trap intestines or fat and cause pain and death.  Some sows need caesarian sections to deliver their piglets.  Older pigs often need surgeries to remove internal tumors, deadly objects they have swallowed, to amputate toes, or to remove infected teeth.  Many other surgeries have been performed on pigs including unusual ones like replacing a urinary bladder that has prolapsed out the vagina. Pot-bellied pigs do present challenges as surgical patients due to the shape of their abdomen, their often considerable stores of belly fat, and their fight-or-flight response when they are restrained for medical care.  A pig recovering at home will need a suitable small recovery area that prevents jumping and running and is easy to keep cool, clean, and dry.  Pot-bellied pigs are often stubborn patients and may resist nursing care.

It is an Arizona law that a veterinarian must provide a written estimate before a pot-bellied pig (or any animal) undergoes anesthesia, surgery, or other medical procedures. It is your responsibility that you understand the estimate before signing it. Ask the veterinarian or staff member what unfamiliar words mean. If you decline something that the doctor is recommending, this may impact his or her understanding of your pet’s needs. Ask if there are any other costs that will arise after the surgery assuming there are no complications.  Be sure to let the veterinarian know if you expect emergency measures are to be instituted if your pig has a life-threatening complication during surgery or if you would rather choose “do not resuscitate”. Provide an emergency contact number so that the veterinarian can call you if needed during the surgery.  Another state law is that you must provide your birth date if your pig is going to received a controlled medication such as morphine or buprenorphine for pain relief following surgery so don’t be offended if you are asked for proof. If you have signed the estimate, you are agreeing to pay for what the veterinarian does for your pig regardless of whether the surgery is successful or not.

A well-trained pig is a much easier patient than one that has trained its owners to give in to its needs.  A pig that is leash trained, knows its name, will sit or lie down on command, and has been on many car rides before, will often be a great patient. If you have a “wild child”, you may want to talk to the doctor about a tranquilizer to give to your pig before its journey to the hospital.  However, if your pet has never been seen by the veterinarian before, or if it has been more than a year since the veterinarian last examined your pig, he or she cannot prescribe anything due to a state law.  An annual or semi-annual trip to the veterinarian for wellness examinations will help your pig be familiar with your veterinarian and help your veterinarian be familiar with your pig.

Potbellied pigs are anesthetized for major surgeries.  A pig usually need to be sedated with injectable medications and then placed on gas anesthesia.  The sedative calms the pig down so that it is relaxed enough to be held by hand while it inhales gas through a face mask and falls asleep.  A pig may be so excited or upset that a sedative will not work. In that case, the veterinarian will give a different mix of medications to cause the pig to fall asleep. If your  pot-bellied pig is not on a fortified ration with extra vitamin E and selenium, it may need an injection of these nutrients to prevent white muscle disease.

This pig has been intubated so that oxygen and a gas anesthetic can be delivered directly to the lungs. This allows control of the depth of anesthesia. It also allows extra ventilation of oxygen if an emergency arises.

Once the pig is asleep, a soft silicon rubber tube is inserted into its trachea (windpipe) to deliver a mix of oxygen and anesthetic gas such as sevoflurane or isoflurane.  Some pigs may be irritated by the endotracheal tube and cough or gag for a few days after surgery.  If your pig seems to be coughing more often than normal in the days following surgery, please let your veterinarian know.  Take your pig’s temperature before calling – if your pig was calm during this procedure and its temperature was more than 101.0°F, it may have a fever.  Sometimes a coughing pig can be treated with a cough suppressant and an anti-inflammatory but a pig that is running a fever may need antibiotics.

Once a pig is asleep, it may have a catheter placed in a vein in its front leg, its hind leg, or its ear, so that intravenous fluids can be given during surgery.  This is important to help maintain blood pressure and so that any emergency drugs that are needed can be given quickly.  Your pig may have a shaved area where the catheter was placed.  Some pigs have veins that are difficult to catheterize and may have multiple areas shaved.  Sometimes the area may appear bruised where the catheter was inserted.  The bruising usually fades within a few days.  If your pig seems very painful at one of these areas, or if it is swollen or warm, you should let your veterinarian know.  Some drugs can be irritating when injected and cause these signs.  Occasionally a catheter may come out of the vein and irritate the surrounding tissue.  A cold compress may help and in some cases a veterinarian may prescribe baby aspirin to help break up any clots and relieve pain.  Do not give aspirin without asking your veterinarian first since your pig may be on a pain reliever like meloxicam which might create problems when mixed with aspirin.

On some occasions, a pig may not have suitable veins and will have the catheter placed into a bone.  This is called an intraosseous catheter.  Since bone marrow connects to the circulatory system, this works almost the same as an intravenous catheter.  Most pigs do not show any sign of pain following an intraosseous catheter but some may limp for five to seven days. The same aftercare information about intravenous catheters applies to intraosseous catheters.

Dr. Johnson draping a pig for a neuter surgery. A technician monitors the pig closely throughout anesthesia, surgery, and recovery.

What happens during surgery depends on the size of your pig and what is wrong.  Some surgeries are over quickly and the pig may be able to go home within a few hours of waking.  Other surgeries take a long time or have complications requiring that a pig stay in the hospital overnight or even for several days.  Your pig may have received pain relievers, antibiotics, medications to assist the heart and lungs, antiacids, electrolytes, dextrose, and diuretics during surgery.  Small piglets may go home from a spay or neuter surgery with no visible sutures.  Adult pigs may also have “invisible sutures”.  However obese pigs or large aggressive pigs have visible nylon or stainless steel sutures in their skin.  This more durable suture is needed to hold the skin incision together.  If your pig has visible sutures, they will need to be removed 10 to 14 days after surgery.

It is important to watch the incision carefully for the next 14 days.  If you see redness, swelling, oozing, or opening along the incision line, call your veterinarian.  You may gently clean most incisions with a dilute solution of povidone iodine mixed with water.  Povidone iodine may be sold under the brand name Betadine®, Xenodyne®, or other label.  Add enough povidone iodine to one cup of warm water so that the final solution is the color of iced tea.  Soak a cotton ball, piece of cotton gauze, or wash cloth with this and gently pat the incision.  Do not rub!
Do not let your pig go into an outdoor pen until its incision is healed.  This prevents flies from infesting the wound with maggots.  If you see small white to yellow objects like tiny grains of rice, they are fly eggs and need to be removed immediately by flushing with a solution of povidone iodine. Take your pig to the veterinarian if you see any fly eggs or maggots.

A clean well-lighted indoor room lined with blankets, carpet, foal bedding, or newspapers works well as a recovery room. The room should feel comfortable to you, between 72 and 85°F. Make sure the food and water bowels are secure to prevent tipping.  You may leash-walk your pig only for bathroom needs during this time.  Make sure to clean out any urine or fecal accidents quickly.

You must keep your pig from running, jumping, or climbing until its belly incision is healed, typically for seven to fourteen days.  In general, an obese older pig needs to be rested longer than a young physically fit pig. A pig may need a tranquilizer during this time if it is restless or aggressive due to boredom.  If you exercise it too soon, you may rupture the incision in the muscles and create a hernia.  In some cases, pigs have even ripped open the skin incisions which are surgical emergencies!  If that ever happens, wrap a damp towel around your pig’s belly.  If you have dilute povidone iodine, splash it on the exposed body parts before wrapping your pig. You must get your pig to your regular veterinarian or to an emergency clinic as soon as possible.

Your pig may have supervised contact for no more than 15 minutes with its animal friends such as another pot-bellied pig or the family dog.  This allows your pig to remain part of the herd but prevents its companions from licking or otherwise damaging the incision.  If your pig gets rambunctious with its playmates, then you should stop the play and only allow contact with each other through a gate between the rooms.

It is important to follow the directions of all medications prescribed by the veterinarian.  Your pig may go home with one or two kinds of pain relievers, generally a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as meloxicam or an opioid like buprenorphine or both.  It may also go home with antibiotics, stomach protectants, vitamins, and other medications.

Most pigs are eating normally within 24 hrs of their surgeries.  It is helpful to offer small amounts of favored treats if your pig is reluctant to eat.  Sometimes adding hot water or a hot vegetable broth to the pig’s normal pellets may make them more appetizing.  Some pigs may need to be syringe-fed a slurry of their normal pellets mixed with water or dilute fruit juice until they are eating on their own. A pig may have a sore esophagus or upset stomach, particularly if it regurgitated during anesthesia. This may cause a pig to seem hungry but have difficulty swallowing or act uncomfortable after eating. Your veterinarian may prescribe a stomach protectant such as Pepcid-OTC (famotidine), Zantac (ranitidine), or Carafate (sucralfate) to help with these signs.

Make sure you let your veterinarian know how your pig is doing once it is home.  If you have any questions or concerns, it is better to call and find out if it is something serious than to sit home and worry.  Keep your recheck appointments even if your pig seems to be doing fine so that your veterinarian can assess your pet and make sure it is healthy or recommend additional tests or treatments if he or she detects that something is not quite right.