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The effect of birth weight and age at tail docking and ear notching on the behavioral and physiological responses of piglets

Bovey, K.E., Widowski, T.M., Dewey, C.E., Devillers, N., Farmer, C., Lessard, M., Torrey, S. (2014). The effect of birth weight and age at tail docking and ear notching on the behavioral and physiological responses of piglets, 92(4), 1718-1727.


Selection for high prolificacy has resulted in litters comprising a large number of low-birth-weight (LBW) piglets. Given their presence in over 75% of litters and increased mortality rate, it is clear that a greater understanding of LBW piglet management is required for both animal welfare and productivity. In this study, we compared the effects of tail docking and ear notching LBW and average-birth-weight (ABW) piglets at 1 or 3 d of age on suckling, behavior, passive transfer of immunoglobulins, and growth. Six piglets per litter from 20 litters (n = 120 piglets) were used in a 2 × 2 complete block design. Piglets were weighed at birth and designated as LBW (0.6 to 1.0 kg) or ABW (≥1.2 kg) and "processed" (tail docked and ear notched) at either 1 or 3 d of age. Vocalizations were recorded during the procedures. The acute behavioral responses were observed for 10 min after the procedure. Piglets were observed for 6 h after birth and after the procedure to determine their presence at nursing bouts. On d 5, blood samples were collected to determine concentrations of serum immunoglobulins (IgA and IgG) and IGF-I. Piglet weights were recorded at birth and on d 5, 14, and 21. During the procedures, LBW piglets produced fewer (P = 0.03) calls than ABW piglets. Piglets from either birth weight category produced a similar number (calls/s; P = 0.29) of high-frequency calls (≥1,000 Hz), which are indicative of pain and distress, although the average frequency (Hz) of these calls was greatest (P = 0.05) for ABW piglets processed on d 3. Immediately following the procedures, LBW piglets spent more (P = 0.005) time dog-sitting and less (P= 0.005) time lying than ABW piglets. When observed with the sow, LBW males spent more (P = 0.001) time alone and had the lowest (P = 0.007) attendance at nursing bouts compared with LBW females and all ABW piglets. Concentrations of serum IgA (P = 0.06) and IgG (P = 0.04) and plasma IGF-I (P = 0.003) were lower for LBW than ABW piglets regardless of age of processing although the magnitude of these differences was likely not of biological significance. Average-birth weight piglets may be less reactive to the acute effects of the procedures on d 1 than on d 3. Given the decreased likelihood of a LBW piglet surviving to weaning (P = 0.001), delaying processing until 3 d of age for LBW piglets may eliminate unnecessary procedures. © 2014 American Society of Animal Science. All rights reserved.

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