Toys engage pig’s interest and can help prevent abusive behaviours
At first, the pigs race to the back of the pen after glimpsing the multi-coloured plastic toys Kyla Ballard has attached to their teeter-totter. One pig approaches, then another, and within minutes the entire pen is sniffing and biting the new toys.
Then it squeaks. The pigs are startled and there’s another mad dash to the back of the pen. However, the pigs are too curious to stay there. They begin taking timid steps to the front of the pen and their enthusiasm is rekindled until there is a swarm of pigs biting, chewing and making the toys squeak...nonstop.
Watching the scene, it’s hard to know who is having more fun – Kyla or the pigs. She’s grinning away, delighted with her charges, as they play with their new toys.
As a farrowing technician employed at R.M. Matheson Farms near Embro, she was keen to be involved in a University of Guelph/OMAFRA study which investigated the durabiity, maintenance requirements and pig interest in two styles of environ-mental enrichment devices: a teeter-totter style design (termed TT) and the Tri-Star, a PVC swing-style apparatus with arms and chains which hangs from the ceiling (termed TS).
Heather Neureuther is a second-year veterinarian student at the Ontario Vet College who organized the study under the tutelage of OMAFRA veterinarian, Dr. Tim Blackwell. She says many pig farmers have used environmental enrichment items such as bowling balls or tires but these touch the ground.
“Enrichment devices are better if they don’t get contaminated with feces,” explains Heather. “So we tried to investigate toys that are suspended, made locally and available for purchase.”
The teeter-totter is manufactured by Trimar Steel in Millbank while the Tri-Star is sold by Plastic Welding Repair and Fabrication in Dundalk.
Eleven farms, including R.M. Matheson, cooperated in the study. The toys were installed and farm owners or employees were asked to watch and record data, specifically recording the number of pigs playing with each toy during one minute periods every morning and afternoon for a four-month time frame.
“I always see pigs playing with the devices,” says Kyla, who has worked with pigs for five years. “They seem to really like the toys which make noises. Whether it’s a bell, a squeak or the clang of metal, they will repetitively get the device to make the noise.”
Each farm received four toys – two TT’s and two TS’s. Each had chains and a bell was attached to one of each kind.
At R.M. Matheson farms, the choice was made to install the TT and TS in the finishing barn because that’s where pigs stay the longest.
Behaviourally, there were some instances of biting before the toy’s arrival but it wasn’t a significant problem.
“If we saw it happening, we would throw in a feed bag or an old tire and that would distract the bullies and give the injured pig time to heal,” recalls Kyla.
The new toys are more effective, she believes. “It stops the pigs from looking for something to chew on because there is now something in the pen for them to chew at.”
Kyla finds their behaviours fascinating and coming from a dog and horse training background, she understands why pigs need environmental enrichment.
“These are growing pigs. Like puppies, they have lots of energy. Yet they are in these four walls. They get bored!” says Kyla.
“I think pigs have an oral fixation just like puppies. If they were in the wild, they would be constantly on the move, rooting through the ground with their snouts.”
Heather agrees. “Pigs like to forage and build nests but they can’t do that in pens. Providing toys is a good way to allow pigs to express their natural behaviours.”
Both women were keen to make the pig’s conditions more enjoyable. Kyla felt it was not unlike the days when she kept rodents and built massive kingdoms with cereal boxes and toilet paper rolls to keep her pets entertained.
“When they asked me to take part in the study, I was like ‘Oh God, yes!’ ”
Her employers, Bob and Scott Matheson, were very encouraging. “They just laugh at the toys I bring in to attach to the chains on the teeter totter. I mean, they only cost a few dollars each so even though they only last a few days, it’s not a problem.”
The pig’s prodigious chewing capabilities was an important focus of the study since any environmental enrichment toy would have to be durable.
The incredibly destructive nature of pigs was very surprising to Heather, who did not have a lot of experience with pigs growing up. “There was even a barn where the finishing pigs broke the welded part of the teeter-totter!” This, however, was an exception for her research indicates the teeter totter as the least destructible of the toys since it is made entirely of steel and bolted on the wall between pens. Chains are always dangling from the ends for the pig’s interest.
The second environmental enrichment toy, the TS, originally came with four rubber arms.
“They were quickly chewed down to nubs,” says Kyla. The farm did replace the arms but found the task cumbersome. The mainframe of the toy, with its PVC plate and dangling chains, has survived the ravages of sharp pig teeth and is a very popular toy...more popular than the teeter totter because more pigs can play with it at one time.
This proved true across the study reports.
“The study revealed that while both toy designs sustained pig interest for the duration of the study, the TS had a greater percentage of pigs interacting with it,” states Heather. “It does require more maintenance than the TT.”
At all the study farms, the plastic arms on the TS were completely chewed off when placed in finisher pens.
Heather also found that noise did not influence the proportion of pigs that played with either toy. What really piqued pig’s interest was change.
“For instance, whenever we replaced the plastic arms of the TS, there was an immediate increase in pig interaction,” she says.
Taking the study further, Heather had four farms mark the pigs to keep track of which pigs played with the toys. It was discovered that all the pigs in a pen will take turns playing with the toys over time.
Environmental enrichment has long been a factor in swine welfare. However, it is now considered necessary as part of the 2014 Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs.
The section of the Code focussed on environment enrichment states: “Pigs MUST be provided with multiple forms of enrichment that aim to improve the welfare of the animals through the enhancement of their physical and social environments.”
The Code of Practice has several recommendations (see sidebar) to provide environmental enrichment.
Scott Matheson says he’s completely on board with environmental enrichment as long as it’s practical and the devices are easy to maintain.
Some of the toys originally tested in a pilot project for the study included wooden parts which he says are hard to clean, if the pigs don’t destroy them first.
He plans to add more toys so that every pen in the finishing barn has an environmental enrichment feature.
Scott’s veterinarian and co-creator of the environmental enrichment study, Tim Blackwell, says farmers may feel like the Pig Code or organizations like Persons for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) are pushing them but in reality, environmental enrichment is just about taking care of animals.
Biblically and historically, he says farming is seen as the most respected profession. “So be professional,” he says.
A stockman should have three professional goals.
1. Animal welfare
2. Food safety for the consumer
3. Environmental protection
Simply put, Blackwell says that we take care of the animals, and they take care of us.
As for the study, Heather says she hopes farmers find it useful when choosing designs and materials that function well as swine environmental enrichment devices.
“The requirement to provide environmental enrichment in all swine pens can be frustrating for producers to fulfill,” says Heather. “This study identified two enrichment devices that sustain pig interest.”
Also, she now knows that pigs can destroy just about anything.
“Farmers don’t want a toy that has to be replaced every week. The study gives farmers two ideas of toys and materials to use that last.” ◊