In their first few days of life, piglets may undergo several painful husbandry procedures such as teeth clipping, tail docking, ear notching, and castration.
What is teeth clipping and tail docking?
Piglets are born with canines commonly referred to as ‘needle’ teeth. Teeth clipping is a practice which involves cutting the tip off these teeth to prevent potential injury of litter mates and the sow’s udder.
Piglets have their tails docked (shortened) by cutting the end section of the tail to prevent tail biting of litter mates and other pigs after weaning. Tail biting problems on commercial farms has led to the widespread adoption of teeth clipping and tail docking as a routine husbandry procedure.
What is tail biting?
Tail biting is an abnormal behaviour where pigs bite and chew on other pigs’ tails. Tail biting can lead to injuries in the victim, and the victim can experience pain and fear. This is often exacerbated in an outbreak situation, where the behaviour can spread rapidly throughout a group of pigs and victims can be targeted persistently. Tail biting has also been associated with a variety of conditions including spinal abscesses, septicaemia (blood poisoning), and a reduced growth rate in victim pigs.
What are the welfare issues with teeth clipping and tail docking?
Teeth clipping and tail docking are routinely done with no anaesthesia or pain relief, as well as requiring piglets to be individually restrained which in itself is stressful. After teeth clipping, piglets show obvious signs of distress and pain such as squealing and ‘chomping’. It can also cause gum and tongue injuries, painful inflammation and teeth abscesses . Tail docking also causes acute trauma and pain since the tail has lots of nerves. After tail docking, piglets struggle, squeal, tail wag and clamp their tails between their hind legs, indicating obvious signs of pain and distress [2, 3]. Furthermore, pigs which have had their tails docked can be susceptible to infection and increased sensitivity to pain in the end of their tail .
Although teeth clipping and tail docking can reduce the frequency of tail biting, it does not completely eliminate the problem because it does not address the underlying causes. In the European Union, tail docking and teeth clipping on a routine basis has been prohibited, and there is further legislation limiting its use in countries including Denmark, Sweden, and Finland . In Australia, the Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Pigs, suggests that where these procedures are performed that teeth clipping should be done within three days after birth and tail docking within seven days after birth .
What are alternative methods to address tail biting?
The cause of tail biting is multifactorial, but one of the main factors which contributes is a barren environment and the inability for pigs to perform exploration and foraging behaviour. Risks for tail biting behaviour include an absence of straw bedding and enrichment, low space allowance, poor shed ventilation, inadequate or sudden changes in diet, competition for resources, poor health status, and stress. In order to reduce the incidence of tail biting, pigs should be provided with an environment that offers appropriate stimulation and satisfies their motivation to explore and forage with the provision of straw or other enrichment. Good stockpersonship (positive handling) and a good pig-to-stockperson ratio (allowing close monitoring) are essential to identify changes in pig behaviour for early detection and intervention to prevent a tail biting outbreak. In addition to optimising the environment and management of pigs, the heritability of tail biting is high enough that genetic selection against the behaviour could provide a promising route to addressing the tail biting .
What is ear notching?
Ear notching is one of the most common methods utilised on farm for the identification of pigs, particularly future breeding pigs. The procedure involves the use of specialised pliers to punch a V-shaped notch or notches on the outside of a piglet’s ear. The ear and the position of the notch is meant to allow producers to identify what litter a piglet belongs to and the litter number .
What are the welfare issues with ear notching?
Like teeth clipping and tail docking, ear notching is performed without anaesthesia or pain relief. After ear notching piglets can attempt to escape, squeal and head shake, all behaviours indicating piglets find the procedure stressful and painful. Unlike other forms of identification, ear notching is not legally required and is instead a voluntary on-farm management choice. Whereas other forms of identification which are also painful procedures such as ear tagging or tattooing are legally required under the mandatory National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) for pig traceability .
What is castration?
Male piglets may be castrated when they are young to reduce the risk of aggressive behaviour and undesirable meat characteristics such as boar taint. Piglets may be castrated using physical or immunological methods (immunocastration). Physical castration involves the surgical removal of the testes and is generally preformed within the first 7 days of a piglet’s life. Immunocastration works by chemically delaying the onset of puberty in piglets which requires two doses of a vaccine.
What are the welfare issues with castration?
Physical castration when used is usually performed without anaesthesia or pain relief, resulting in significant pain and distress for the piglet. Alternative methods such as immunocastration provide a more humane option to physical castration. To read more about boar taint and castration in pigs, click here.
What is RSPCA’s position on painful piglet husbandry procedures?
The RSPCA is opposed to teeth clipping, tail docking and ear notching as routine husbandry procedures. These procedures, especially when performed without anaesthesia or pain relief, cause significant stress and pain to piglets. The docking of tails in any animal should never be performed unless under veterinary advice to improve an individual animal’s health and welfare. Intact tails that are unbitten on farm are probably one of the best indicators of a well-managed pig production system.
Since teeth clipping and tail biting can cause very poor welfare and are painful both in the short and long term, alternative measures should be implemented and more research should be conducted on ways to control tail biting. Alternative methods for on-farm identification of pigs also needs to be explored to provide producers ways to easily and quickly identify pigs without the need for painful husbandry procedures like ear notching.
Where it is considered necessary to castrate male piglets in order to prevent boar taint, the RSPCA supports the use of immunocastration. This avoids the need for physical castration which result in piglets experiencing pain and suffering especially when they are not anaesthetised or provided pain relief.
Teeth clipping, tail docking, ear notching and physical castration is not permitted under the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standard – Pigs. Find out more about what RSPCA Approved means for pigs.
 AVMA (2014) Literature review on the welfare implications of teeth clipping, tail docking and permanent identification of piglets.
 Noonan G, Rand J, Priest J et al (1994) Behavioural observations of piglets undergoing tail docking, teeth clipping and ear notching. Animal Behaviour Science 39:203-213.
 Sutherland M (2015) Welfare implications of invasive piglet husbandry procedures, methods of alleviation and alternatives: a review. New Zealand Veterinary Journal 63:1,52-57.
 Primary Industries Standing Committee (2008) Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals: Pigs, Third Edition. PISC Report No92.
 EFSA (2007) The risks associated with tail biting in pigs and possible means to reduce the need for tail docking considering the different housing and husbandry systems. The EFSA Journal 611:1-13.