Revolutionising pig veterinary care: insights from farmed animal sanctuaries

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» Revolutionising pig veterinary care: insights from farmed animal sanctuaries

Researcher Network member, Kate Goldie, discusses how alternative relationships with farmed animals as companions and in sanctuaries opens up new avenues for veterinary care.

Every year, around 10 million pigs are raised in the UK solely for human consumption. The vast majority of these pigs are slaughtered before they even reach six months old[1]. Throughout their brief lives, their veterinary care primarily focuses on maximising productivity and ensuring their welfare is maintained until their slaughter. Beyond the confines of the farm, spaces of sanctuary exist where pigs are given the opportunity to flourish and grow old. Nevertheless, their veterinary care is, arguably, ill-equipped to manage the unique health and welfare needs of these animals who are not destined to be human food, unlike their species counterparts. During my PhD research exploring affect in human-pig relationships across various spatial contexts, I spoke with several farmed animal sanctuaries. These insightful discussions shed light on the implications of limited veterinary knowledge for both the lives of pigs and the humans striving to foster environments for the ongoing flourishment of pigs. In this blog post, I share some of my research findings that reveal how alternative approaches to pig care in the sanctuary setting may invite us to envision a world where pigs are valued beyond their commodity status.

The farmed animal welfare paradox

In the UK, the well-being of farmed animals has emerged as a high priority, capturing significant public attention and leading to the adoption of various regulations governing animal welfare. As a result of this, the field of animal welfare science has emerged as an established discipline, significantly advancing our knowledge of both the positive and negative physiological and psychological states that farmed animals may experience[2]. In the contemporary animal agriculture market, animal welfare has become increasingly intertwined with processes of economisation, where it is commodified and marketed as a valuable quality through welfare validation schemes and ‘happy meat’ marketing[3]. Consequently, a paradox arises when conceptions of welfare remain entrenched in a system of animal commodification that ultimately leads to their slaughter. Alternative approaches to understanding farm animal care, health, and welfare, therefore, struggle to materialise when animals are governed by a logic of commodification. Owing to this paradox, my research is governed by what insights we may glean from pigs who outlive the farm.

Learning from rescue pigs

Early on in my PhD research, I came across the book “Allowed to Grow Old – Portraits of Elderly Animals from Farm Sanctuaries” by photographer Isa Leshko[4]. The book showcases photographs of elderly animals residing in farmed animal sanctuaries across the United States, including pigs like Teresa, a thirteen-year-old Yorkshire pig. Teresa was rescued as she was on the way to a slaughterhouse at six months old. As she grew into an adult pig at the sanctuary, Teresa began to struggle with arthritis, a common ailment among pigs rescued from factory farms due to their breeding that predisposes them to excessive weight gain. Teresa’s story serves as a poignant reminder of the physical toll and health challenges faced by farmed animals. By exploring the lives of pigs like Teresa, I hoped that my PhD research could uncover crucial knowledge about the unique care that pigs need when they are permitted the opportunity to flourish as they grow old.

To achieve this goal, I visited a sanctuary for pigs where I volunteered for a week. Additionally, I interviewed 12 staff and volunteers from animal rescue organisations in the U.K. that housed pigs. These organisations were committed to providing long-term care for pigs, many of which were commercial pigs bred for human consumption.

Caring for the rescue pig

Whilst the animal sanctuaries I spoke with as part of my PhD research were dedicated to offering a safe haven for pigs, providing long-term care for adult and elderly pigs presents its own set of challenges, as veterinary medicine designed to treat commercially farmed pigs arguably lacks expertise in this field[5]. Often, obstacles to providing optimal care in these sanctuaries arise from conflicting perceptions of pigs as 'livestock' versus their recognition as 'companions' within the rescue context. This pressing concern was brought to light by Jack, the founder of one such sanctuary.

“[When the sanctuary began] I knew nothing… it was a case of learning as you went along, sometimes to the detriment of animals. Even back then, we’re talking 25 years ago, it hasn’t really moved on much if I'm honest when it comes to pigs. Vets knew how to breed pigs, fatten pigs, and kill pigs.”

Interview with Jack, sanctuary founder 

Jack’s statement highlights a concerning reality regarding the state of veterinary knowledge and care for pigs beyond their lives on the farm. Within pig rescue communities, there was often frustration at the quality of veterinary care available for their pigs, care that would be commonplace should a dog or other companion species be the patient. Interview participants suggested that this lack of veterinary knowledge was due to the pig commonly being viewed as a commodity, resulting in a cost-benefit analysis where the potential financial costs of treatment are weighed against the value of the pig itself.

“there's not loads of research out there in terms of treatment. Because they don't live for that long… you know, a lot of farmers are just like ‘I’m not paying for that.’”  

Interview with Grace, animal rescue operations manager.

The lack of dedicated research into treatments for common ailments in adult and elderly pigs arguably reinforces the perception that pigs are expendable commodities rather than sentient beings deserving of comprehensive veterinary support throughout their lives. Consequently, pig rescue organisations often held distrust for farm veterinarians.

Advancing pig care: collaborative and unorthodox treatments

Jessica, a pig sanctuary founder, recalled an instance where a resident pig displayed signs of allergies. Disappointed with the advice from a veterinarian to administer antibiotics, which would not address the root of the problem, the sanctuary team decided to carefully observe the pig’s reactions to various foods and environmental factors. Through this patient and attentive process, they discovered that she had allergies to certain materials used in her bedding. Equipped with this knowledge, the pig was given new bedding and her symptoms eased. Similar dissatisfaction with veterinary advice was voiced by other sanctuaries, who often pursued their own treatments or enlisted the help of other veterinary professionals. This was exemplified in my conversation with Ben, a farmed animal sanctuary founder, where he discussed an incident involving Treacle, a pregnant pig who suffered a broken leg.

“When my Treacle broke her leg… a farm vet on site examined her, no pain relief, knowing her leg was broken, said, “she needs to be killed, now”. I said, well we wouldn’t kill a horse who broke their leg, we have had several horses with broken bones… we use unorthodox treatment … we persevere. He never administrated any pain relief to a creature that had broken a bone, could you imagine this?”

Interview with Ben, a farmed animal sanctuary founder.

When discussing Treacle’s case, Ben made it clear that the sanctuary has a euthanasia policy, requiring that animals will be put to sleep if there is minimal chance of recovery and if the decision is deemed to be in the best interest of the animal's well-being. However, in Treacle’s case, Ben opted to seek the expertise of another vet. The new vet agreed to try an alternative approach and fitted Treacle with an external fixator on her broken leg to support healing. While such treatments are commonplace in companion animal practice, they are rarely employed for pigs due to the associated financial and time commitments, as well as the practical difficulties of keeping a pig in a sanitised environment during healing. Treacle had to be kept in a clean environment for twelve weeks to prevent infection, requiring staff to provide extra enrichment and spend time socialising with her. As a result of the sanctuary’s efforts and collaboration with a willing veterinarian, Treacle not only recovered from her broken leg but also gave birth to eleven healthy piglets, showcasing the potential for positive treatment outcomes when pigs receive the same level of care as their companion counterparts. During my research, I heard stories about pigs being denied treatments from veterinarians that would be customary in companion animal veterinary practice. However, I was also told stories of veterinarians who were willing to experiment with unorthodox treatments for pigs such as Treacle. 

Aware that veterinarians were often not equipped with the knowledge or expertise to treat illnesses seen in elderly pigs, sanctuaries often experimented with preventative treatments. For instance, one pig sanctuary trialled different turmeric remedies as a preventative treatment for arthritis, found in many of their pigs who had been commercially bred. The pig sanctuary’s experience with such ailments in elderly pigs was even drawn upon by their own farm veterinarian.

“Like with the arthritis, they [the veterinarian] know we have a lot of pigs with that and they ask what supplements we give, what works and so on. So, they can share that with other owners”.

Interview with Jacqui, a pig sanctuary founder.

I spoke with several other pig rescue organisations that had established similar collaborative partnerships with veterinarians eager to explore experimental surgeries and treatments. By actively engaging with these veterinarians and exchanging valuable insights gained through hands-on experience, these pig rescue organisations are committed to fostering the long-term well-being of pigs. Through these collaborative efforts, they aim to bridge the knowledge gap and open up new avenues for adult and elderly pig care. This collective endeavour has the potential to significantly enhance the understanding of pig health and welfare, ultimately benefiting all pigs, both within sanctuaries and beyond.

Imagining the future of pig veterinary care

Through the exploration of pig care beyond their conventional roles as commodities, significant gaps in veterinary knowledge and care for adult and elderly pigs have come to light. However, in the face of these challenges, pig rescue organisations have emerged as beacons of hope, actively working to bridge the knowledge gap and improve the well-being of these sentient beings. The profound experiences and insights gained through their dedicated work challenge the notion of pigs as commodities, inviting us to envision a future where pigs are valued beyond their economic worth. I argue that drawing from the collaborative efforts of sanctuaries and veterinarians holds tremendous value. It is through these collective efforts that we can truly create spaces for the ongoing flourishing of pigs, transcending the boundaries of their commodity status and embracing compassion and respect that can extend to all farm animal species.

The views expressed by our Research News contributors are not necessarily the views of The Vegan Society.


[1] RSPCA (2022). Welfare of Pigs. October 2022.'%20environment,requirements%20(see%20page%202). [Accessed 24/07/2023]

[2] Buller, H.; Blokhuis, H.; Jensen, P.; Keeling, L (2018). Towards Farm Animal Welfare and Sustainability. Animal, 8, 81.

[3] Buller, H. and E. Roe (2014). "Modifying and commodifying farm animal welfare: The economisation of layer chickens." Journal of Rural Studies 33: 141-149.

[4] Leshko, I. (2019) Allowed to grow old: Portraits of elderly animals from farm sanctuaries. The University of Chicago.

[5] Abrell, Elan L., "Saving Animals: Everyday Practices of Care and Rescue in the US Animal Sanctuary Movement" (2016). CUNY Academic Works.

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