Tail biting: still an enigma in pig science

Tail biting may prove to be a lasting problem in pigs despite serious attempts to find ways to overcome it. A Dutch project is gathering new insights into the phenomena, but progress is slow.

About 2.5 years ago, the Dutch pig industry decided to move towards a situation in which pig tails would not be cut as much and eventually not at all – provided that this can happen in a responsible way.

Tail biting is often compared to a bucket with water that sometimes can overflow. This can happen as a confluence of shortcomings, e.g. ventilation problems, health problems, environmental problems, climate problems, animal-related factors and an absence of distraction material. The first step towards finding lasting solutions included the setting up of a demonstration project, the creation of a practical network and the search for international cooperation.

pig tail biting

Demonstration project: no tailor-made solutions

The demonstration project, coordinated at the Swine Innovation Centre (VIC) Sterksel, the Netherlands, showed the lack of tailor made solutions at the moment. The project, which lasted 2 years, did yield a lot of new insights, said researcher Marion Kluivers in a press release. Between January 2014 and November 2015, 117 litters with in total 1,428 entire-tailed pigs were followed and observed from birth to slaughter in Sterksel, with different results.

Also interesting: Tail biting and tail docking: Biology, welfare, economics

Tail biting is one of the main behaviour problems in pig production, causing reduced welfare and considerable economic losses when outbreaks occur. Research in northern Europe leads to a better understanding of the problem.

The highest risk was observed to occur in the first weeks after weaning or after the introduction in the finisher pig house.

Early detection of pig tail biting

Early detection was found to be essential for a rapid intervention, which requires highly skilled pig caretakers. During the trials in Sterksel, especially in the beginning caretakers found themselves searching for solutions. Towards the end of the trial period, it was much easier to act quickly, e.g. by supplying additional distraction material (fixed or loose elements) or by isolating one particular animal.

Adjustments in feed, climate and water proved to be vital to improve a situation.

Also interesting: Spray against tail biting - by British animal nutrition company A-One Feed Supplements

The spray, called TailGuard, is a proprietary blend of water, bitter principals, naturally derived oils and preservatives – but no alcohol. Sprays directly at the pig's tail or the area surrounding the tail - it gels as it makes contact with the pig and will remain on the pig for at least 2 weeks.

Analysis of tail biters

The researchers identified 3 different types of tail biting pigs:

  1. 2-tier tail biter, developing from suckling on a tail to biting on a tail.
  2. Tail biters having a habit of becoming aggressive out of frustration, e.g. when  access to feed or lying places were insufficient.
  3. Obsessive or fanatic tail biter, a pig that is continuously looking for tails to bite on. The reasons for their behaviour are unclear, but especially this particular type needs isolating.

Kluivers said in her conclusion that sometimes it was possible to identify a plausible cause for an outbreak of tail biting, but not always. It shows the necessity to continue on this path.

Practical network of 7 pig producers

The practical network consists of 7 pig producers: 6 conventional pig producers and 1 organic pig producer, already farming his pigs with entire tails. All pigs in the network face tail biting problems.

International cooperation: Germany and Denmark

International cooperation is also very important and will therefore be continued. Coordination between several countries is important as pigs are traded from one country to another and potential future market demands for pork from pigs with or without tails.

Together with Germany and Denmark, an overview has been made of European countries active in tail biting research, indicating what has been done per country. With this overview, future research can be better coordinated, allowing international comparison and avoiding double work.

Tails are being cut to avoid tail biting

Standing practice nowadays is that tails are being cut to avoid tail biting. These problems occur in conventional as well as organic pig farming.

The initiative to find a solution for tail biting is supported by a wide range of stakeholders, including the Dutch Union of Pig Producers (NVV), the Dutch agricultural organisation LTO Varkenshouderij, veterinary organisation KNMvD, animal welfare organisation Dierenbescherming, animal feed producer Coppens Diervoeding, breeder Topigs Norsvin, the Netherlands Ministry of Economic Affairs and Wageningen UR.

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