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Treating piglet anaemia

Dr Ioannis Mavromichalis
The nutritional value of iron has been known for over 2000 years, and it's role is today well recognised and appreciated. In brief, iron is an integral part of hemoglobin and myoglobin, both of which play a central role in the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the blood and muscles. Iron also plays an important role in the function of many enzymes, including those in the Krebs Cycle of the energy metabolism. As such, the role of iron in the organism can only be described as very important, if not indispensable.

Nevertheless, sow's milk is poor in iron (1 mg/liter) and piglets are born with low levels of iron reserves (less than 50 mg). With a daily requirement of 10 mg iron, piglets are bound to develop iron deficiency (anaemia) within the first week of life if their only source of iron is sow's milk. This apparent 'anomaly' in evolution does not take into account the fact that piglets born in natural environments (for example, wild boar piglets or piglets born in outdoors systems) do not develop anaemia. As it happens, constant contact with soil, which is very rich in iron, ensures enough iron is ingested (as dirt via natural rooting or by suckling through a soiled udder) to cover the needs of newborn pigs.
 
Still, we are left with piglets raised indoors that are sure to develop anaemia as they lack access to soil, making anaemia a systemic problem of modern pig breeding and not a disease as it was often thought of as in the past.
 
The ways to prevent piglet anaemia are many and varied. I offer here those known to me,
but I invite our readers to contribute with their experiences!
 
Sterilised soil in creep feeders
This is an obvious treatment but it has several problems, including variable intake of soil,
high labour requirement, and the risk of transferring parasites and diseases in less than well sterilised soil batches.
 
Copperas
Another 'ancient' method, it involves covering the sow's udder with a paste of any ferrous salt. The paste can be readily mixed daily at the farm and the mix is then rubbed on the sow's udder using a large brush or cloth swab. Again, this is a very labour intensive procedure requiring attention to ensure sufficient coverage of the udder on a daily basis.
 
High levels of iron in creep feed
This is not recommended because piglets do not consume enough creep feed early
enough to prevent anaemia.
 
Rooting material
This is similar to providing soil, only in that sterilised turf or preserved silage, with or
without supplemental iron is offered the same way as with soil. This is more successful but equally laborious, and furthermore it requires diligence in application and hygiene.
 
Paste
An iron rich paste is placed into the mouth of newborn piglets (usually within two days from birth). This paste is also enriched with glucose, lipids, immunoglobulins, vitamins, and other minerals. Here attention should be placed on making sure the iron is of a readily digested source and that the paste is actually being swallowed by piglets.
 
Oral Tablets. A small tablet is placed at the root of the tongue causing a natural
swallowing reflex. Again, the iron must be provided in a highly digestible format. A trained person is required to perform this task to avoid rejection of the tablet.
 
Intramuscular injection. Piglets are injected in the muscle of the neck or ham with up to 200 mg iron, as iron dextran. When weaning age is around 21 days of age this is enough to cover their needs until they start consuming enough dry feed post-weaning. If weaning age is later than 21 days of age, then a supplementary dose is probably required. The only problem with this method is that there is always the risk of broken needles left inside the muscle, which result in condemning a large part of the carcass (usually a part as valuable as the ham) or even the whole carcass if efforts to retrieve the broken part are unsuccessful.
 
So, what are your experiences?
 
 

7 comments

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    John Gadd

    Ioannis - you asked for comments.
    Years ago when I was a very junior pig technical officer with a firm of large manufacturing chemists, we developed a what I think was the first ever piglet anaemia paste at their Thurgarton research farm, headed by the pioneer of piget anaemia research, veterinarian Dr Brownlie. We developed the paste idea to try to couneract the injection problems of broken needles (which you mention) but also the more common one of carcase condemnations from residual iron staining of the muscle at the injection site - now almost totally overcome in the latest products.
    The paste was tricky to administer (I did hundreds) which I overcame by squeezing the 1 cc. dose on to the back of the handle of a teaspoon - later a wooden spatula. A spatula made the dose easier to apply as it could be inserted further into the mouth without damaging the tissue, and with practice - by lifting and a slight twist of the wrist - stimulated the swallowing reflex.
    The paste sold only moderately well and was overtaken by the much more expensive injection once they overcame the muscle staining.
    But broken needles still do occur and trainee stockpeople should always have a lesson in all injections from the local vet - and pass a test on it!

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    Dr Nikolaos Kotrotsios

    The additional injection of piglets with iron at day twenty is a cheap and effective way to insure piglets an optimal amount of haemoglobin throughout their growth period. Fast growing and healthy pigs need to be supplemented with more iron than the usual 200 mg used at day 1-5 of life. So pig producers are advised to further supplement their piglets with iron. Although the main question if the pigs in case of infections like PMWS or PRRSV less susceptible to these infections if they have a high level of haemoglobin at weaning remains to be answered in the veterinary practice.
    Thanks

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    Tore Framstad

    Treating piglet anaemia

    First, iron deficiency anaemia happens to day, but the piglets are usually not very anaemic. Haemoglobin concentrations below 70 g/L give clinical visible anaemia but values below 90 g/L are shown to give reduced weight gain. Piglets with haemoglobin concentration between 70 and 90 are not easy to pick up clinically; you need to take blood samples. Fast growing piglets will develop anaemia shortly after birth unless iron is supplemented. The main reason for this is that that the iron body reserves in piglets are only 6 – 7 mg, not about 50 mg as said in different textbooks. Most of the iron in the piglet at birth (50 mg) is already bound as haemoglobin and therefore not a reserve for additional synthesis. This was already found by Venn & al for more than 60 years ago and confirmed by Thoren-Tolling in the 70’ies and Egeli in the late 90’ies. Egeli found in her Thesis that the reserves of iron in the piglet are emptied already on day 3. Some (very few) piglets showed a haematological blood picture similar to iron deficiency anaemia already at birth.

    We have calculated the amount of iron needed to prevent anaemia and cover iron in myoglobin and enzyme-systems. If the piglets have available 40 mg iron/kg weight gain, the haemoglobin concentration will be good. Therefore, if the piglets have weights of about 6 - (6.5) kg (4.5 - 5 kg weight gain) in 21 days, 200 mg (with 95% utilisation) of iron given as an injection will cover this. HOWEVER, the bioavailability of iron given into the mouth is, at best, perhaps only 50%. 200 mg iron given in mouth by birth, even as iron dextran, will not cover the iron demand in those piglets. The absorption of iron dextran will go down very soon after the piglets start to suckle and you should therefore give this compound within 24 hours.

    Therefore, fast-growing piglets need iron early in life. When they are kept indoors, you need to give them a start-dose iron “by force”. With only voluntary intake, the piglet will develop some degree of anaemia, because the piglets grow very rapid from sow’s milk before they consume enough iron voluntary. Nevertheless, after a start-dose, the supplementation can be voluntary uptake. We have tried iron in peat, iron in water solutions, iron in powder and iron in “iron-pellet”. When the supplementation is administered freely available or daily, these methods will cover the iron supplementation. Iron injection (200 mg) alone can cover the iron demand for maximum about 21 days. However, with that amount, very fast-growing piglets (very high milk production/consumption) will also be in shortage of iron from about day 16 – 18 and haemoglobin concentration will go downwards. This could be detrimental at weaning.

    Broken needles in ham or neck are not the only problem with injections at these places. It is also a question about animal welfare. Try to inject 1 ml of a solution in your neck/ham and the same amount subcutaneously and decide what you prefer! With some training, it is no problem to inject subcutaneously in front of the knee. From animal welfare reasons, injections should be done subcutaneously instead of intramuscularly whenever possible!

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    Blonde

    Well!! That is a list of ideas for the transfer of iron in to piglets. I farrow on a soil/hay based hut and dont have to give iron. Also there is no labour in providing soil to the crate where the piglets are living with Mum. They just dig into the dirt on the edge of the nest and consume a little or a lot and get their iron from there. No thought given to how much they might need. I certainly dont get around with the iron injection or the bottle to help them out.

    I guess this is the lazy way to have piglets but for every pig I have to handle that is an added cost. So from my point of view it is better they help themselves than me do it.

    The soil is also not steralized only cleaned out from one sow to the next. Piglets do fine in this manner of production!

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    Ioannis Mavromichalis

    Many thanks for your comments, guys!

    I only have a question...We all agree that pigs at weaning might benefit from an additional injection. The math support this. But, where is the evidence? Do we have any trials where post-weaning performance/health improved from giving extra iron at weaning? I am asking because from my own experiments (unpublished) I have failed to elicit such response and I have not found anything in literature. Thanks for your help!

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    Blonde

    you are thinking about giving iron at weaning, why not add it to their creep feed and allow them to consume iron from say day 10 when they are just thinking about eating solids but still on Mum for their milk. Then by the time they are weaned, they can either stay on it or be taken off or have the dose reduce. It (Iron) could be added either in a home mix or in pellets

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    Stéphane Durosoy

    Ioannis, your comments are relevant. I agree that, even if it is practiced in some areas, a second iron injection around weaning in modern “standardised” conditions of pig production does not seem to be justified 1) technically, from published studies and grey literature 2) economically, if you consider both products and labour. Also, you may add the point of animal welfare.
    This debate about piglet anemia should raise many other questions!

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