by JoAnn Alumbaugh, PORK Network Editor 

Like people, animals can function up to a certain level even when they don’t feel good. But if a condition is allowed to persist, it can have a long-term impact on the animal’s well-being and even lead to death. That’s why early identification of sick animals is imperative.

Dr. Bill Minton with Four Star Veterinary Service in the Chickasaw, Ohio office, presented a recent SowBridge session. He told listeners that timely recognition of sick sows not only improves animal well-being, it also can improve productivity, lower sow mortality rates, improve sow longevity, decrease gilt replacement rates and increase cull sow value.

“There is a three-prong approach to my analysis of sick or off-feed sows,” Minton says. These include farrowing, gestation/breeding, and lameness.

“Lameness usually accounts for more than 50% of all treatments in a stable herd,” he says. “Look for lame conditions in both farrowing and gestation barns.”

Farrowing Watchfulness
Minton separates the farrowing process into three phases: parturition (labor), days 1 to 3 post-farrowing, and the remainder of the lactation period, saying, “Sows will have different issues in each of these phases.”

Check to see how the gilt or sow adjusts to being in a farrowing crate, says Minton. Is she eating and drinking normally? Is she cleaning the feeder? Are there signs of constipation? Is someone present during the farrowing process to make sure the sow isn’t in distress?

“Parturition is a very stressful time in a sow’s life, especially in those early parities,” Minton says. “You want a smooth transition from gestation into the farrowing house. Their physiology is changing and they’re unsure of what’s happening.”

Most operations have someone in the room during the farrowing process, checking the sow regularly. If too much time passes between pigs being born (more than 20 or 30 minutes), Minton says someone should manually check the sow.

Many operations routinely “sleeve” sows. This involves putting on a sterile plastic glove and gently entering the birth canal to see if a pig is either too large, is turned the wrong way, or if the sow has become too tired to push). Minton stresses the importance of good sanitation practices when performing obstetric exams to help minimize the risk of uterine infections.

Post-Farrowing Care
Check to make sure all afterbirth has passed and that the sow is eating normally. Minton suggests you check udder condition and observe the quality of the piglets. During lactation, watch the sow’s appetite level and her general well-being. Make sure the environment is conducive to sow comfort, and monitor body condition, especially at warmer times of the year.

“At some farms we take a rectal temperature routinely at 24 hours post-farrowing to make sure we don’t have residual complications and that she’s properly cleaned. Uterine infections will show up on temperatures of 103 degrees or more,” Minton says.

If a sow has a high temperature, her milk production will be impacted. “It will drive the sow off feed and water intake and a day or two later it will have an impact on milk production,” Minton says, “And if it’s bacterial, it can move through the mammary gland and be detrimental to the pigs.”

Don’t overfeed sows immediately post-farrowing recommends Minton. “Depending on genetics and the body condition of the sows, it’s something to monitor more closely. A lot of farms by day 2 or 3 have offered sows full feed or ad lib. Use appetite as an indicator of how well the sow is doing,” he says.

Check sows’ udders for swelling. Minton says most pigs can’t nurse-out all the milk the sow is producing in the first 48 to 72 hours, and check for constipation.

“Sows that are constipated will drop off feed and they don’t feel comfortable. Let’s not overlook this area as an indicator of sow performance,” Minton says. “Also, look for other clinical signs of disease, such as coughing, diarrhea, paleness, vomiting, discoloration of skin or lameness.”

Lactation Sow Care
Day 4 through weaning, check that the sow’s udder is functioning properly and that she can handle the number of pigs she has.

“Make sure you’re doing everything you can to entice appetite for increased milk production,” he says.

Gradually ramp-down the room temperature. “Remember we’re really trying to keep the sow comfortable – the piglets will be taken care of in the microenvironment (with a heat lamp). Over conditioned sows will be more challenged.”

If a sow begins to develop shoulder sores, address the problem right away. “We use an iodine-based product with lidocaine added to it,” Minton says. “There are some other products being tried, including an anti-granulating product, but this is extra-label at this time and it’s fairly expensive.

“If we don’t address a lesion early enough it can become a very severe erosion – don’t overlook these early lesions,” Minton adds.

On fostering, Minton says, “We try to restrict some of our movement from litter to litter but watch sows carefully and add or remove pigs as needed.”

Treatment should be addressed with your herd veterinarian, and depends on the nature of the problem. Minton says three common categories make up the majority of issues during farrowing: mastitis, metritis (uterine infection), metabolic (physiology of an organ system) or musculoskeletal conditions (lameness). Medications may include antibiotics, steroids for anti-inflammation, vitamins, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) or hormones (oxytocin).

Minton uses Oxytocin judiciously, although he does like to use it when sows are at the end of the farrowing process because he says it can help constrict the reproductive tract.

Prevention is the key to minimizing the number of sick sows during farrowing and lactation, which means early detection is critical.

Gestation Observation
A daily walk-through during feeding will have the most impact on evaluating sows during gestation, says Minton. He recommends you listen for abnormal sounds like coughing, squeals, panting, etc.; observe for discharges and abnormal stools, and make sure all sows can stand up.

“Record and follow-up on suspect sows,” he says. “Make a note and call it to someone’s attention or take proper action.”

When he says to observe sows, he means through observation.

“Look at sows – really take your time to look at every animal and view them from different directions because you may not always be able to visualize a health condition from one particular view. Look for unusual posture or gauntness, and determine what the issue is.”

Necropsies can be a helpful diagnostic tool.

“Performing a necropsy and understanding what is normal versus abnormal in the animal can be a valuable skill for the team to learn,” Minton says. “Tissues can be collected and either sent to the lab or reviewed by a veterinarian. If you are having unexplained deaths it’s a valuable tool to collect tissues and analyze them to do a further diagnostic investigation.”

Eliminate Lameness
More than 50% of sow deaths or euthanasia is caused by lameness, but Minton feels the number shouldn’t be nearly that high.

“I think lameness is preventable and treatable most of the time. If we intervene at the right time we can have a significant impact on reducing sow mortality,” Minton says. “If you’re not treating 1% of your sows, perhaps you’re not aggressive enough. If you have a 2,500-sow operation and you’re not treating 8 to 10 sows on a daily basis, you’re probably not treating enough.”

Lameness can be caused by housing (pen gestation), diseases, injury (abrasions, cuts, fighting), nutrition (cracked hooves or uneven hoof growth), environmental issues (replacement flooring, green concrete that’s is still curing), or genetics (animals with incorrect feet and leg structure).

“Look for sows that have difficulty standing or rising,” says Minton. “See if animals shift their weight or tap their feet and look for swelling, cuts or bleeding. If an animal avoids the group or is walking slowly, check them out more closely.”

Producers can use systemic antibiotics and pain relievers and should correct any nutritional concerns, Minton recommends. Remove sick or injured animals from the pen and put them in a hospital stall. Consider a foot bath with copper sulfate (4 lb. CuSO4 to 15 gal. water) or rubber mats.

“Copper sulfate has some nice antibiotic properties and is helpful in conditions where you’re seeing more foot injuries,” Minton says. “Hoof-trimming is a band-aid to the problem but can be helpful as sows move into the farrowing room.”

He asserts the importance of being proactive in sow health, particularly as it relates to lameness.

“Control lameness by identifying those animals early, and provide proper therapy for the condition until the sow is better – not just as a one-time occurrence,” Minton says. “Use of individual sow treatment cards can follow a sow through her current parity and into the next farrowing period; it’s easily visible by staff and managers and records treatment for recommended periods. It’s also important in terms of the records producers are required to keep.”

Early Intervention: The Right Thing to Do

Monitor your herd on a regular basis, and take a close look at mortality, suggests Minton. It can be an important barometer to monitor sow health.

An early response to sick sows improves animal well-being as well as your bottom line. Train your staff to look for signs of animal distress and encourage them to take action as necessary.

How to identify sick sows