How Many Piglets Can One Sow Carry? You'll Never Guess
With spring in the air, it is suddenly baby season again. Not all livestock are seasonal breeders, meaning they breed and have young during certain seasons. Dairy cows calve year round, and hogs give birth (also called farrowing) independent of the season. But sheep, goats, beef cattle, and horses tend to give birth as the days get longer and warmer. This makes the spring season very busy for large animal vets.
There’s one case of springtime babies that particularly stands out in my mind. This is the case of perpetual piglets.
A few years ago, I was called out to help deliver some piglets. The sow had delivered five piglets twenty-four hours previously and since then gave up pushing, which they sometimes do, usually caused by exhaustion, especially if one piglet is turned the wrong way or a little too big.
Delivering pigs is usually one of the easier species to deal with in this regard: the piglets are small, quite unlike the 100-pound calves I sometimes have to deliver. Therefore, on this call, I anticipated a speedy delivery. However, what I instead got myself into was what appeared to be a never-ending cycle of pulling out a piglet, reaching back in, pulling out a piglet, reaching back in, etc. I felt I was stuck in a temporal loop of delivering piglets and there was nothing I could do!
An average pig litter (a group of piglets is called a litter, just like with puppies and kittens) is normally eight to twelve piglets. One of the challenges of delivering piglets, however, is that it is difficult to know when they’ve all been delivered. Sows are long and my short arm cannot reach all the way to the end of the uterus; many a time I’ve been able to just barely touch the end of a piglet’s tail with the tip of my fingers, but not be able to grasp it to pull it out. If this were a dog or cat, you could simply take a quick X-ray to determine if all the babies were out; for obvious logistical reasons, this doesn’t happen with a 500-pound sow.
And so with this particular case, I kept reaching in and kept feeling more piglets. I was up to twelve, then thirteen, then fourteen. Finally, one and a half hours later, exhausted, covered in sweat and other stuff, I pulled out what I was convinced was the last piglet to both to mine and the sow’s collective relief.
After about ten minutes of rest, I checked the sow one last time for any other piglets she might be hiding. I felt none. With all delivered piglets alive and nursing, I cleaned up and headed out with instructions for the farmer to keep a close eye on the new family for the next few hours.
I had all but forgot about this visit until I spoke with my boss the following week. Causally mentioning the farm I had visited, she said the sow delivered another piglet the evening after I left. Incredulous, I couldn’t imagine how that sow hid another one from me. Feeling a little embarrassed, I expressed my surprise, but sometimes this happens; my boss knew it and the farmer knew it. It was just one of those things, especially when you have short arms.
Dr. Anna O'Brien