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Understanding & Dealing With New Rescue Pig Behaviors

Newly rescued pigs often go through a series of emotions and behaviors. This transition can be confusing, difficult and frustrating for the pig and the new family or rescuer. Understanding the perspective and social structure of the pigs will help you help them to become well behaved and adored members of the family. When pigs are rescued or adopted they face several challenges. They are depending on their rescuer or adopter to have the knowledge and patience to help them adjust. Lots and lots of patience… While it’s widely accepted that the best way to help a new rescue is to view the world through their eyes, this is sometimes difficult for people that don’t understand the pig’s thought processes. Some reasons for a pig to exhibit unwanted behaviors after rescue: intact pigs overrun by hormones, depression, fear, existing behavioral problems that were tolerated in the previous home, establishing their position within the herd, and/or reassessing their position in the herd when the family members leave or enter the perceived herd. There will be ups and downs while integrating the pig into a family, but with persistence, patience, and love, the pig will reward you for years to come.
To understand the pig, consider his natural herd structure. Pigs are social animals that bond deeply with their family, both hooved and human. They are also creatures of habit. When the pig loses his family, he mourns the loss deeply. As this depression may affect his appetite it is not uncommon for newly acquired pigs to refuse food for 2-3 days. The pig may show depressed body language with lowered head, lack of luster, and not responsive to those around him. He may sleep in his house and refuse to get up. He may reject attempts at social interactions. During this depressed time, it is best to give him the space he is asking for, but also to offer quiet and gentle approaches. Instead of trying to force a harness on him for a walk, simply sit down next to him or his house. Read a book aloud, sing a song, or just talk about your day as if he is listening – because he is! He may not be ready to respond quite yet, but he is certainly listening. A soothing voice with the personal space he needs will let him know he is safe and in trusted hands. The more time you spend with him in a calming, comforting environment, the quicker he will come around. Pushing a pig past his comfort zone at this point will cause a distrust and resentment.

Initially, the newly rescued pig may feel excited about the adventure or fearful and untrusting of the change. Pigs are individuals just as humans are. They come from different backgrounds, environments, and have different ways of coping with their turmoil. If the pig is immediately comfortable and friendly, enjoy their companionship! Spend as much time with them as you can interacting and learning about each other. However, do not think the battle is over. Soon, the herd instincts are likely to kick in and the pig will challenge you in an unexpected way. Pig’s behaviors shift based on their relationship with an individual and their perception of herd dynamics. Aggressive behaviors do NOT point to a mean pig, it only shows that the pig needs you to guide him in a way he understands.
If the pig is fearful, do not press him. Do not intrude on his space or make him uncomfortable. Enter his area, calmly, slowly. Be conscious of how intimidating you may seem to the fearful pig. As a prey animal he sees the world from a different perspective than we do. He may feel threatened if you reach towards him, pick him up, grab him, restrain him, touch him, pet him, or move quickly. For the fearful pig, simply enter his pen or enclosure and sit down. A chair is fine to sit on, but get yourself comfortable. Relax your body language, avoid eye contact. Do not force your presence on him. Simply be there as a fellow being. In this relaxed state, talk soft and sweet. Read a book, sing, or tell the pig about your day. Simply converse as you would with a friend. Your non-threatening presence will give him the comfort and confidence he needs to learn to trust you. Enjoy the time as he transitions to trusting. He will soon consider you family. With this badge of honor, “family”, comes a new struggle – dominance or herd hierarchy. No matter how sweet, affectionate, or mellow a pig is, there is likely to be a challenge or struggle to find his or her place within the family herd. This is far different than integrating a dog or cat into the family. First comes the uncertain pig, then the happy and well-adjusted pig, then suddenly the pig turns on you with aggressive acts. These behaviors do not classify an aggressive pig, it only means the pig is feeling comfortable and overly confident.

While pigs may all enter the rescue/adopted home with different personalities, this integration process will eventually end them up in the same place as they become part of the family, or herd. At this time the pig’s innate social structure urges may kick in. In a pig family there is always a leader. The leader’s job is to protect the herd. This leader must be strong and alert to ward off predators and keep the herd safe. In order to have the best leader for the herd, it is within each and every pig to challenge their way up the hierarchy ladder as far as they can get. These challenges allow the strongest pig to protect the herd with the weaker pigs under his or her protection. As weaker pigs attempt to challenge their way up the herd ladder, the leader will challenge back to secure his higher place as leader. When every herd member is secure in their place, then the herd is at peace. It is only when a herd member believes he or she should challenge another for a higher position that arguments or aggression breaks out. Understanding this natural process will help the rescuer or adopter to pinpoint these behaviors and address them efficiently. These challenges may come in the form of snapping, biting, head swiping, charging, or just plain being bossy. When the pig nudges you firmly trying to move you, he is asserting his dominance or leadership over you. This may quickly lead to a deteriorating situation as the leader of the herd must assert his or her authority over the other members (you). If the pig snatches food, jumps on you, screams at you, or refuses to follow commands, he is not respecting you as leader. These behaviors do not mean the pig is bad or unmanageable. They simply need your leadership to direct them and enforce the family rules.
Once the rules are established, and enforced, the pig will behave as expected with the occasional testing – they want what they want and they are going to poke and prod at the leadership looking for weakness to make sure it’s enforceable. If the leadership is not enforced, they see a weak leader, and an opportunity to move up in ranks. Their behavior will take a turn for the worse as they challenge the family members for the leadership position. Thus, setting rules and enforcing those rules will keep the pig comfortable, relaxed, and well mannered. If they are confident in your abilities to lead and protect the herd, then they will not exhibit those aggressive challenging behaviors.

In pig society, when herd members enter or leave the family then the structure must be reset. When a family member is removed or added to the herd, the pigs see a hole in the leadership. This hole is very dangerous for pigs in the wild, and is ingrained in them as a warning. They feel the need to reestablish the ranking. When this happens, do not take it personal, it is not an insult. The pig does not expressing hate or lack of love. On the contrary, the pig is acting out of concern for the entire family. As you reassure him the leadership is in fact solid and indisputable, he will relax and return to his docile affectionate nature.

Intact pigs are especially prone to a whole range of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviors and interactions with their humans. In the process of displacement or moving to a new home these hormone driven behaviors will be amplified. For the most part, these behaviors cannot be trained away. In some cases they can be managed but the overwhelming hormones will continue to cause problems for the pet pig. When an intact pig is rescued, especially boars, it is important to have them spayed or neutered immediately. The hormones will begin to dissipate over the next two weeks. As the hormones decrease, the pig will be far more receptive to appropriate interactions and training. An intact pig acting aggressively is only a temporary issue. While their behavior may not be acceptable for a pet, a spay or neuter will resolve many behavioral issues.

Many displaced pigs have developed unwanted behaviors in their previous home or environment. This may be due to neglect or lack of leadership structure. Frequently, these undesirable behavior problems are the reason the pig is in need of a new home. It is important to differentiate preexisting bad habits and the normal process of a pig establishing himself in a new family and environment. Pigs that have been allowed to dominate their human family will be more difficult and determined. It may take more time to work these behaviors out, but your dedication is the greatest gift this adopted/rescued pig will ever receive.