Last month I wrote an article for the March issue of Veterinary Practice News on the HSUS and its resemblance to PeTA (reference my previous post). In it, I urged that vets who would look to the HSUS’s HSVMA as an alternative to the AVMA might do well to consider otherwise. In response, I received numerous emails offering their point of view on what the HSVMA represents.

Among these came one from a swine practitioner who works for a group which provides domestic and international consulting to the pig industry. He agreed with my assessment of the HSUS and worried that the sow confinement issue was misunderstood by the general population. I urged him to impart his wisdom so that we might become educated, enlightened or at least aware of how those in the biz saw the issue.

I asked him what his position as a “pig vet” had led him to believe was best for pigs destined for our food supply—especially when it come to the hot button issue of sow confinement and free range pork.  Below are his words, dutifully reprinted, for your consideration. If it helps any, I felt this vet’s words were thoughtful, provocative and honest.

Q. Dr. Matt Ackerman: Thank you for your kind note and point of view as a “pig vet.” I’d love to hear more about your work and about the real issues in your industry you believe are of animal welfare concern. The AVMA has asked me to list the animal welfare imperatives across all industries that vets believe they, as an organization, could better address.

To that end, how could sow confinement be achieved more humanely to address the comfort level of the sows? Is this indeed necessary? Are pigs truly better served with larger spaces? How would you address the penning vs. crating issue? Thinking “outside the box” for a moment, how can the pork industry in the US compete more effectively against global markets given its dwindling size?

I ask these questions not because I haven’t heard several points of view already, but because you seem genuinely interested in imparting this knowledge and a vet’s “direct” point of view on these issues is not one I’ve ever been privy to (my failing).

A. Patty: Thanks for your reply.  As you figured out, I am a Swine Consultant. I am in a 3-veterinarian practice in Indiana that works exclusively on pigs. We travel locally about a 3-hour radius getting into IN, IL, OH, KY and Michigan. I also work in Kansas and Colorado. One of my partners spends a week a month in Mississippi and my other partner spends 2 weeks a year in Southeast Asia.


In the US we work with producers that have a combined total of about 100,000 sows which produce about 2 million pigs per year. US production is about 110 million, so we see about 1.5% of US production.


 I believe that the issues in our industry of an animal welfare concern are: 

1. housing (individual stalls vs. pens).


2. antibiotic use (whether we are allowed to continue to use them at "growth promotent" levels, whether we are allowed to treat current groups based on previous group history, and other restrictions on antibiotic use.


3.  Employees - finding enough good quality employees—this is part of the reason I am so passionate about individual stalls—it is a lot easier to feed and care for animals properly if they are individually housed.


4.  Keeping [the AVMA] together—I wouldn't vote against something done in small animal that I didn't understand or like if the experts in that area thought it was best for the animals (that is why I sooo liked your article).


You asked if we need sow confinement.  When I think of “confinement” I think of indoor housing and yes we absolutely need indoor housing. We raised pigs outdoors on our home farm from 1970 to 1984—talk about inhumane. Mother nature is not very kind—wind, rain, snow, cold, hot (pigs don't do well in the heat—humid or dry). We definitely need buildings and full time indoor temperature controlled environments if we want a safe, quality and wholesome food supply for a global customer. I love it when animal rights folks say they want "free range" chicken or pork or whatever. If living outdoors is such a good idea, why don't more people do it?

If you meant do we need individual stalled animals, then the answer is technically no.  We can raise them in pens. It is cheaper for us to put them in pens. It is not as “animal welfare friendly” to have them in pens. What people forget is that they are animals. They fight. They exert dominance and establish a pecking order. When they are feed, boss sow gets the most and someone gets the least. They bite each other’s ears, tails, vulvas and sides. The average sow weights 450 pounds and can do some damage. Yes, they are domesticated, but they are still animals.


I also find the “organic” movement interesting. Farms that couldn't get certified to sell grade-A milk can now sell organic milk as long as they compile with feeding only organic feed stuffs. It's all about marketing!


An individual stall provides 4 of the 5 Freedoms:


1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst—by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

2. Freedom from Discomfort—by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease—by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.

4. Freedom to Express Normal Behaviour—by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.

5. Freedom from Fear and Distress - by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

Number 4 is the only one that is debatable, but I would argue that a pen environment doesn't adequately provide for 2 & 5.


I find it interesting that small animal vets and kennels keep the cats and dogs individually housed.  Equine vets keep their animals individually housed.  I know that people don't like it that the pig can't turn around, but when we tried making "turn around crates" it was harder to keep the food and water free from urine and fecal contamination and it didn't seem to provide any measurable benefit to the animal.


As I try thinking outside the box, I do have clients experimenting with pens and trying to find the size and number of animals that seems to work best.  We are finding that having more in a pen with the same square feet per animal is better. For instance, 10 animals at 20 sq ft per animal is better than 5 animals at 20 sq ft per animal. It seems that [we should] give the weak more room to run. But it still comes back to [this:] if you were in a dorm room, would you rather be in a group pen or individually housed? If you were in a hospital, would you rather have an individual room or a group room? There are a lot of benefits to having your own space. 


The senior partner in our practice thinks that I am wasting my time, that people have already made up their minds. When they see PeTA's picture of the one large sow in an individual stall, it is hard to fight the issue. But the reality is [that] good producers don't let their animals get as obese as that and [that] the animals do very well in a well managed farm.


I appreciate your interest and applaud your desire to become more knowledgeable on this subject. I welcome your ideas on how we as an industry could do better at taking care of the animals and reach out to our non-agriculture friends.


So…what do you guys think of this?