News 3801 views last update:Feb 25, 2016

New EU project to reduce tail biting, docking

Can tail biting in pigs be avoided without the farmer having to resort to docking the pigs’ tails? Scientists from eight different countries are collaborating on finding solutions using different approaches to the problem.

Scientists from Aarhus University are collaborating with scientists from seven other countries on a new research project on how to prevent one of the major behavioural problems on commercial pig farms: tail biting. The aim of the collaboration is to yield new knowledge which will help to remove the need for tail docking, the currently widespread preventive practice of cutting off part of the tails of young piglets.

"Our goal is to reduce tail biting using other methods than docking of the pigs' tails. This would prevent the pain associated with docking in the pigs and ease the work load of the farmers," says senior scientist Lene Juul Pedersen from Aarhus University.

Tail biting is one of the major problems in modern pig production, both in terms of animal welfare and production economy. It is an abnormal behaviour that can result from several causes, such as stress, illness, poor indoor air quality or competition for food or water. One of the main causes is lack of materials that the pigs can chew on or root.

Pigs have a strong innate need for exploring their environment by chewing, biting, rooting and manipulating various objects and materials. When there are not enough exploration and manipulation substrates in the pen, biting can get redirected to other pigs, especially their ears and tails. This may result in tail biting.

Cutting tails poses problems
In many European countries, tail docking – the practice of cutting part of the piglets' tails at a young age – is used to control the problem. While this does reduce the risk of being bitten, it causes pain during cutting. Is also possible that damage to the tail nerves caused by docking can alter the sensitivity of the tail to touch for the rest of the pig's life.

Some farmers, consumers, legislators and others would like to stop the practice of tail docking. The EU pig directive states that tail docking can only be used if other means of preventing the behaviour have been tried. In some countries, for example Sweden, Norway and Finland, the practice of tail docking is already banned. These countries therefore provide an opportunity for testing methods to prevent tail biting without needing to dock.

Understanding and preventing tail biting
The FareWellDock project is a three-year research project beginning in the  autumn of 2013 in Denmark,  the UK, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the USA. The overall aim is to supply necessary information for quantitative risk assessment of tail biting, and to stimulate the development towards a non-docking situation in the EU.

Research will be carried out in three complementary international researcher activities. One group will delve into developing improved measures to prevent tail biting. An essential part is research into reasons for tail biting outbreaks, i.e. which factors in the daily life on farms actually trigger this unnatural behaviour.

Another research group will develop methods to assess what constitutes a sufficient  quantity of straw or other chewing and rooting materials to satisfy the pigs' need to explore and therefore reduce tail biting risk, and how to improve the feasibility of using straw on farms with different manure systems.

The third group of scientists will focus on finding out what actually happens to the piglets that are tail docked. They will investigate how much pain piglets feel during docking, whether this results in long-term pain and how this compares to the pain which is experienced by pigs which are tail bitten should an outbreak occur.

The project is led by Professor Anna Valros of the University of Helsinki in Finland. The other research institutes participating in the project are Scotland's Rural College and Newcastle University in the UK, INRA in France, Aarhus University in Denmark, Wageningen UR Livestock Research in the Netherlands, SLU in Sweden, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, and USDA-ARS in USA.

The project is part of the European Animal Health and Welfare ERA-net initiative (ANIHWA) which aims at increasing cooperation of national research programmes on the health and welfare of farm animals.

SOURCE: Janne Hansen, Aarhus University

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