The extent of inflammation associated with tail biting in
finishing pigs was evaluated. Tail histopathology, carcass condemnation and the
concentration of three acute phase proteins (APPs), C-reactive protein (CRP),
serum amyloid-A (SAA) and haptoglobin (Hp), were examined in 12 tail-bitten and
13 control pigs. The median concentrations of APPs were higher (P<0.01) in
bitten (CRP 617.5mg/L, range 80.5-969.9; SAA 128.0mg/L, 6.2-774.4; Hp 2.8g/L,
1.6-3.5) than in control pigs (CRP 65.7mg/L, 28.4-180.4; SAA 6.2mg/L, 6.2-21.4;
Hp 1.2g/L, 0.9-1.5). There was a tendency for APP concentrations to rise with
the histopathological score but the differences were only statistically
significant between some of the scores. Five (42%) bitten cases and one (8%)
control pig had partial carcass condemnations owing to abscesses (P=0.07). The
results show that tail biting induces an inflammatory response in the tail end
leading to an acute phase response and formation of carcass abscesses.
• Enrichment did not mitigate pain associated with
• Enrichment had a positive effect on growth, activity and
• Enrichment improved pig welfare even if it did not
mitigate piglet processing pain.
Castration and tail docking are common management
practices performed on commercial swine farms in the US and around the world to
reduce adverse behaviors and the occurrence of boar taint. However, these
practices themselves are a welfare concern for the piglet because they cause
acute pain. The provisions of environmental enrichment (EE) may reduce anxiety,
protect from stressors, influence pain sensitivity, and improve the overall
welfare of animals. Our objective was to determine if EE can reduce the
physiological and behavioral stress response caused by castration and tail
docking in piglets over time. Sows were randomly assigned to control farrowing
stalls (CON; n = 9) or stalls enriched (ENRICH; n = 9) with newspaper, soil,
ball and rope, so that EE was available to piglets upon birth. At 5 days old,
ENRICH and CON piglets (n = 54 per treatment) were allocated to one of six
piglet husbandry treatments; four boar piglets were randomly allocated to one
of four treatments: 1) control handled (SHAM B), 2) tail docked (TAIL B), 3)
castrated (CAST), or 4) castrated and tail docked (BOTH); and two gilt piglets
were randomly allocated to one of two treatments: 5) control handled (SHAM G),
or 6) tail docked (TAIL G). Live weight tended (P < 0.10) to be greater in
all ENRICH pigs. Leukocytes and the neutrophil to lymphocyte ratio were
decreased (P < 0.05) among ENRICH compared with CON piglets. ENRICH piglets
were more active (P < 0.05) than CON piglets. Maintenance and play behaviors
decreased (P < 0.05) 120 min after, but returned to baseline at 24 h.
Cortisol was greater (P < 0.05) among CAST and BOTH piglets, but no
differences were observed in cortisol concentrations between housing groups.
Stress vocalizations were greater (P < 0.05) in CAST and BOTH compared with
SHAM piglets, while all pig processing treatments displayed more (P < 0.05) pain
behaviors than SHAM. The use of EE had no effect on reducing pain-induced
stress of castration and tail docking. However, we found that pigs raised with
EE were heavier and more active than pigs raised without enrichment. We also
found that EE modulated the immune response in pigs. In conclusion, EE improved
the overall welfare of pigs at an early age.
UFAW Animal Welfare Conference, Centre for Life, Newcastle, UK 28th June 2018
Coexpression analysis of dorsal root ganglia from tail amputated pigs at different ages reveals long-term transcriptional signatures associated with wound healing and inflammation, and neuropathic pain pathways
DA Sandercock1, JE Coe1, MW Barnett2, TC Freeman2, P Di Giminiani3 and SA Edwards3
1 Animal and Veterinary Science Research Group, SRUC, Edinburgh UK,
2 The Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh UK
3 School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Newcastle University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
Concerns exist that docking and biting injuries may be a cause of long term pain in the remaining tail stump during the pig’s lifetime. The potential for long-term pain has been linked to sustained cellular and molecular changes in peripheral sensory neuronal activity. The aim of this study was to conduct a transcriptome analysis of caudal dorsal root ganglia (DRG) gene expression profiles from pigs subjected to tail amputation, in particular examining genes known to be associated with inflammation and neuropathic pain. Microarray analysis was performed on caudal DRG from sham (control) and tail amputated pigs 1, 8 and 16 weeks after tail treatment at either 3 days (neonate) or 63 days (juvenile). Tail amputation injury induced highly significant gene expression changes (both up and down) compared to sham-treated intact controls at both ages (518-2,794 genes, FDR < 0.05) that were still evident 16 weeks after tail amputation. Network correlation analysis using the Markov clustering (MCL) algorithm to define expression modules revealed two highly correlated (PCT r2 = ≥0.75), interrelated transcript expression clusters related to (A) neuronal function (759 genes) and (B) wound healing (273 genes). In cluster A, gene ontology (GO) and pathway enrichment analysis identified genes with significant GO terms for voltage- and ligand-gated ion channel activity linked to regulation of membrane potentials, neurotransmitter levels and synaptic signalling. In cluster B significant gene expression was associated with receptor binding, protein transcription activity and regulation, linked to processes such as response to wounding, regulation ofresponse to wounding, inflammatory response and activation of immune response. Cross-reference against an integrated database of known genes involved in the regulation of inflammatory and neuropathic pain revealed 124 and 61 pain–associated genes in clusters A and B, respectively. Key functional families of ion channels and receptors were significantly down-regulated in cluster A, in particular voltage-gated potassium channels and GABA receptors which are linked to increased neuronal excitability. Up-regulated functional gene families in cluster B were mostly linked to inflammation, macrophage activity, neurohormone and opioid peptide activity. DRG gene expression profiles appear to be linked to sustained tissue inflammation and remodelling (ca. 4 months) and pain perception modulation consistent with adaptive, compensatory responses to injury induced increases in peripheral sensory neuron excitability in the injured tail stump. Tail amputation causes acute and sustained changes in peripheral somatosensory nerve function involving inflammatory and neuropathic pain pathways which have implications for pig welfare.
By Pierpaolo Di Giminiani, Abozar Nasirahmadi, Emma M. Malcolm, Matthew C. Leach, Sandra A. Edwards. 2017. Physiology & Behavior 182: 69-76.
• Short and long-term behavioural changes due to tail docking in pigs are described.
• Vocalisations suggested the procedure to be painful for piglets.
• The behaviour sampling adopted detected no changes up to 2 days post-tail docking.
• Long-term effects of tail injury on mechanical nociceptive thresholds were absent.
Tail docking in pigs has the potential for evoking short- as well as long-term physiological and behavioural changes indicative of pain. Nonetheless, the existing scientific literature has thus far provided somewhat inconsistent data on the intensity and the duration of pain based on varying assessment methodologies and different post-procedural observation times. In this report we describe three response stages (immediate, short- and long-term) through the application of vocalisation, behavioural and nociceptive assessments in order to identify changes indicative of potential pain experienced by the piglets. Furthermore, we evaluated the following procedural differences: (1) cautery vs. non-cautery docking; (2) length of tail removal. Sound parameters showed a significantly greater call energy and intensity exhibited by docked vs. sham-docked piglets (P < 0.05). Observations of general activity of the animals in a test situation failed to detect a difference among treatments (P > 0.05) up to 48 h post-tail docking. Similarly, no difference in mechanical nociceptive thresholds indicative of long term pain was observed at 17 weeks following neonatal tail docking (P > 0.05). The present results highlight the potential for the use of measures of vocalisation to detect peri-procedural changes possibly associated with evoked pain. Nonetheless, activity and nociceptive measures failed to identify post-docking anomalies, suggesting that alternative methodologies need to be implemented to clarify whether tail docking is associated with short- and long-term changes attributable to pain experienced by the piglets.
By Sandercock DA, Coe JE, Di Giminiani P, Edwards SA. 2017. Res Vet Sci. 2017 Sep 28;114:493-501.
RNA expression levels for genes of interest must be normalised with appropriate reference or “housekeeping” genes that are stably expressed across samples and treatments. This study determined the most stable reference genes from a panel of 6 porcine candidate genes: beta actin (ACTB), beta-2-microglobulin (B2M), eukaryotic elongation factor 1 gamma-like protein (eEF-1), glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH), succinate dehydrogenase complex subunit A (SDHA), Ubiquitin C (UBC) in sacral dorsal root ganglia and spinal cord samples collected from 16 tail docked pigs (2/3rds of tail amputated) 1, 4, 8 and 16weeks after tail injury (4 pigs/time point). Total RNA from pooled samples was measured by SYBRgreen real-time quantitative PCR. Cycle threshold values were analysed using geNorm, BestKeeper and NormFinder PCR analysis software. Average expression stability and pairwise variation values were calculated for each candidate reference gene. GeNorm analysis identified the most stable genes for normalisation of gene expression data to be GAPDH>eEF-1>UBC>B2M>ACTB>SDHA for dorsal root ganglia and ACTB>SDHA>UBC>B2M>GAPDH>eEF-1 for spinal cord samples. Expression stability estimates were verified by BestKeeper and NormFinder analysis. Expression stability varied between genes within and between tissues. Validation of most stably expressed reference genes was performed by normalisation of calcitonin gene related polypeptide beta (CALCB). The results show similar patterns of CALCB expression when the best reference genes selected by all three programs were used. GAPDH, eEF-1 and UBC are suitable reference genes for porcine dorsal root ganglia samples, whereas ACTB, SDHA and UBC are more appropriate for spinal cord samples.
Commercial pigs are frequently exposed to tail mutilations in the form of preventive husbandry procedures (tail docking) or as a result of abnormal behaviour (tail biting). Although tissue and nerve injuries are well-described causes of pain hypersensitivity in humans and in rodent animal models, there is no information on the changes in local pain sensitivity induced by tail injuries in pigs. To determine the temporal profile of sensitisation, pigs were exposed to surgical tail resections and mechanical nociceptive thresholds (MNT) were measured in the acute (one week post-operatively) and in the long-term (either eight or sixteen weeks post-surgery) phase of recovery. The influence of the degree of amputation on MNTs was also evaluated by comparing three different tail-resection treatments (intact, ‘short tail’, ‘long tail’). A significant reduction in MNTs one week following surgery suggests the occurrence of acute sensitisation. Long-term hypersensitivity was also observed in tail-resected pigs at either two or four months following surgery. Tail amputation in pigs appears to evoke acute and sustained changes in peripheral mechanical sensitivity, which resemble features of neuropathic pain reported in humans and other species and provides new information on implications for the welfare of animals subjected to this type of injury.
Tail docking is an undesirable mutilation of pigs. Currently virtually all young piglets are docked in conventional farming so as to prevent tail biting later in life. However, throughout Europe efforts are made to reduce tail docking. Often farmers provide additional enrichment to try and prevent tail biting. Nevertheless, stopping the practice of tail docking may, and frequently does, lead to elevated levels of tail biting, resulting in tail wounds. In relation to this farmers and policy makers would like to know what levels of tail biting would be equivalent to tail docking in terms of pig welfare, i.e. how much tail biting can be allowed before deciding it would be better to continue tail docking. But this poses the problem how to weigh the (lack of) welfare involved in tail biting of a grower or finishing pig against the pain of tail docking of young piglets. Is this possible? And if so, how?
We recently had a brainstorm session on this subject. This is an outline of what we came up with, including a very tentative personal estimate (by MB).
In my personal view when (in the end up to) about 12% of undocked pigs were tail bitten that would be roughly equivalent in welfare to the docking of all piglets. The uncertainty margin, however, is high, at least ranging from 5-25%. The reasoning underlying my estimate is as follows.
Firstly, piglets are normally docked using hot iron cautery. This is quite painful as it involves applying both heat and rather blunt trauma. The heat kills bacteria and thus may reduce the chance of subsequent infection of the tail wound. Tail biting at a later age, by contrast, is caused by even more (and multiple) blunt trauma (due to biting). It also has a substantially higher likelihood of infection. In addition, there is e.g. fear in the tail bitten pig due to being chased by a biter. Based on this I would say that pain (and stress directly related to tail biting) may roughly be about ten times as high in intensity and about ten times as long in duration, compared to tail docking. This would imply that 1 tail-bitten pig is off-set by about 100 docked piglets as regards the intensity and duration of the pain involved.
However, animal welfare encompasses more than just pain. An important additional factor is the level of stress which is not directly related to tail biting activity.
Firstly, there may be stress related to the treatment of tail biting, e.g. when biters and/or victims are taken out of the pen (resulting in social isolation and/or fighting). This stressor, however, is partly offset by the enhanced enrichment normally provided to pigs experiencing an outbreak of tail biting (though not all pigs are equally affected by the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’). Note that there is another, more macabre, offset involving ‘happiness’ too, and that is the excitement experienced by the (sometimes fanatic) biter pigs when a tail-biting outbreak has started. Note also, that this biter ‘welfare’ is at the same time an indicator of the level of (background) stress experienced by pigs leading to this abnormal behaviour in the first place.
A much more important source of stress that must be taken into account, therefore, is related to the general housing conditions to which the pigs are exposed prior to a tail biting outbreak. Tail biting is an unnatural behaviour that is triggered by (some kind of) stress. Pig farmers are aware of this and will try and prevent tail biting by generally improving the housing conditions when they (start to) raise pigs with intact (undocked) tails. Thus the expected level of stress to which the pigs are exposed is likely to be higher in the case of routine tail docking. When farmers stop tail docking they normally provide much better enrichment (rooting material & space). Farmers raising pigs with intact tails will also take other measures to reduce stress, e.g. provide better climatic conditions, better feed and better health care. These stress-reducing measures don’t just apply to the biters or the victims of tail biting. They apply to all pigs in the pen. Furthermore, they don’t just apply during an outbreak of tail biting, but they apply throughout the pigs’ lives. Hence, the reduced stress levels are a major factor reducing the off-set between docking and tail biting based exclusively on pain (and pain-related fear). I would estimate that the improved living conditions may reduce the off-set by at least a factor 10. This would mean that taking into account both pain and stress, 100(%) docked pigs (kept with minimal care and in a more barren environment) could be roughly equivalent to similarly-sized group of pigs with intact tails under enriched conditions and in which 10% of the pigs has been tail bitten.
Tail biting in docked pigs
However, we know that tail biting does not only occur in undocked pigs. It is also seen in docked pigs. Roughly 2% of docked pigs are tail bitten. It seems safe to assume that the level of pain from being tail bitten is roughly comparable in docked pigs and in undocked pigs (though docked tails may be more sensitive and thus less likely to get bitten). Taking this into account would imply that 100 docked pigs of which 2% also experiences tail biting later in life would be having a level of (poor) welfare comparable to 100 undocked pigs of which 12% gets tail bitten. This is about 6 times as much tail biting as the 2% base-line set under conventional docking conditions.
It must be emphasised again, however, that this level of 12% tail biting is a very rough estimate. So, a wide safety-margin applies, e.g. 5-25%. This may depend in particular on the quality of enrichment and the extra care provided under non-docking conditions.
Please note, that this post is the result of a brainstorm session only and presents a personal view. It illustrates how systematic reasoning (using principles of semantic modelling) can be used to start to answer this rather important welfare question. I have provided a very rough estimate. For a more accurate assessment more detailed studies would certainly be required, both in terms of more carefully including what is already known and in terms of accumulating more empirical knowledge about what is not known yet. At present the assessment is still very speculative, and meant to illustrate primarily how to in principle deal with the question of what level of tail biting is equivalent to a practice of routine tail docking.
Postscript: Excluded aspects and some feedback from readers
Note that, in my estimate I neglected several (minor) aspects.
Firstly, I neglected the fact that for tail docking piglets must be picked up. This results in stress, both in the mother sow and in the piglets. From an evolutionary perspective the procedure of catching piglets may be equivalent to experiencing capture by a predator. This would mean that the given estimate would be a moderate underestimation. However, tail docking may be performed in combination with other treatments such as iron injection and castration. If so, the additional stress from handling may be relatively minor. Note, however, that castration applies only to males and may be banned in the near future, and iron injection may be given orally as a kind of ingestible compost, or as has recently been shown, may not be necessary at all. Hence, combining such treatments with tail docking has a reducing likelihood.
Secondly, I assumed that teeth cutting will not be practiced to treat an outbreak of tail biting, neither in the docked pigs, nor in the undocked pigs. Or, more precisely, at least I assumed teeth cutting is not practiced in substantially different numbers of pig. Such teeth cutting is painful and illegal, so it could be considered appropriate to ignore the practice. However, if it were practiced more in undocked pigs (which are likely to experience higher levels of tail biting), then it would have a substantial impact on the level of equivalence, pushing the percentage back down again substantially.
A third point to note is that I did not include in the estimate other ethical considerations or our (anthropomorphic) emotional responses. An example of the latter may be related to the amount of blood seen in the pen, the farmer’s level of stress (unpredictability) associated to this, and the potentially adverse economic consequences associated with tail biting. An example of other ethical considerations is the fact that tail docking may be considered to be an infringement of the animals’ integrity or intrinsic value. In such a rights-based moral view tail docking may be considered ethically wrong, regardless of the level of tail biting when tail docking is stopped. Such aspects were excluded because these are aspects not directly related to animal welfare. They are more related to our human perception of ethics and/or human welfare, rather than animal welfare.
Finally, it is most important to emphasise that I have considered steady-state conditions, but realize that all practices are subject to optimisation. The practice of tail docking has already been optimised for over a period of at least 50 year. By contrast, the practice of raising pigs with intact tails still more or less has to enter the phase of optimisation in commercial practice. This implies that substantially higher levels of tail biting may be regarded as acceptable, provided this is only temporary and provided it leads to substantially lower levels of tail biting later on. In other words, it requires that farmers will persist in raising pigs with intact tails and have a chance to learn to deal with it over a certain transition period, both in terms of prevention and treatment of tail-biting outbreaks.
Feedback reader 1:
Regarding the painfulness of tail biting vs tail docking, I find it impossible to guess the relation – especially as tail biting comes in so many forms.
I absolutely agree that a weighing like this is necessary, but I also think it is a bit dangerous to throw out estimates that are not really based on any evidence (or at least you do not present any?), such as the 100 times worse pain experienced by bitten pigs than docked pigs. Also, tail biting is very heterogeneous, from just a small, one-time bite, to a chronic situation, where the entire tail is lost, so the way you estimate the pain simplifies the matter greatly.
As to the expected level of actual tail biting when docking is stopped: I estimate a two-fold increase in tail biting if no docking is performed. Perhaps somewhere between 2- and 4-fold, based on e.g. slaughterhouse data. There may be a 4-fold increase when the housing situation is not improved otherwise – which you also take into account in your text – when applying a non-docking policy the farmer would normally also improve housing conditions, thus reducing the risk further. I certainly agree that when a farm stops docking, they will probably have a higher incidence of tail biting initially, but on the long-term (as is shown e.g. in Finland where tail docking is totally forbidden, and the tail-biting incidence, based on abattoir data is around 2%), a 10 or 12% incidence is certainly higher than I would expect.
Feedback reader 2:
Having read your blog I think you need to factor in adaptive, compensatory pain modulation into your model.
It is sometimes too easy to fail to take into account post-injury peripheral and central modulation of pain signalling that occur as part of the normal healing process and only focus on the ‘pro-pain’ component.
I also don’t see how you can substantiate this claim?
‘Based on this I would say that the pain of tail biting may be about ten times as high and about ten times as long, compared to tail docking. This would imply that 1 tail-bitten pig is off-set by about 100 docked piglets as regards the intensity and duration of the pain involved’.
While I think it might be possible to attribute weighting to some risk factors within systems, I don’t think it can be applied to pain experienced by an individual (or even at group level as you are suggesting) because there are so many factors that contribute to an individual’s experience of pain? I don’t think you can quantify the painfulness of tail biting and tail docking.
Also when thinking about stress you might want to define what you mean by that in relation to chronicity?
Short-term compensatory responses to stress are in my view positive for the animal; however beyond that when there is a failure of compensation and ultimately homeostatic decompensation then they are undoubtedly negative.
I guess I’m suggesting that any weighting approach might need to accommodate (or factor in) changes over time (i.e. dynamic weighting?)
I hope you find my comments helpful?
As to substantiation, again, it’s my suggestion for a start of an argument to answer this in my view fairly important question. My answer is based on my personal experience as a vet and scientist, and on reasons indicated in the blog. It is certainly in need of further study, examination and assessment. I fully acknowledge the considerable level of uncertainty as well as the risk associated with trying to answer the question. At the same time, however, I would also argue that there is a considerable risk in refusing to try to answer the question, as this leaves the issue to stakeholders.
Feedback reader 3:
Joining the discussion rather late, but basically I agree with the points others have made. I think it quite reasonable to conceptually set out the trade-offs which would determine the level of tail biting above which tail docking could be ethically justified, but putting numbers on some of these things is rather difficult.
For risk of tail biting in docked and undocked pigs we have a growing number of published sources and comparative national data.
For experimental comparisons we have old data suggesting increases of 30-60% in pigs in unbedded systems.
More recently we have studies suggesting somewhat lower results if straw is given.
So this part is perhaps simple, but depends on your assumptions about which husbandry systems will pertain across Europe.
For the welfare detriment of tail docking and tail biting, data indicate that both have long lasting effects on pain processing pathways, but the implications of this for pain perception for the individual are uncertain.
For tail docking, the data I have seen are still contradictory on whether cautery is more or less painful than simple section (some suggest the cautery destroys the nerves whilst others suggest greater pain). There is also the possibility of tail docking with anaesthesia/analgesia as a route of adoption.
For tail biting, the short term pain will certainly depend on the severity and, even more, on the prevalence of infection. The data on this are currently lacking to my knowledge.
The welfare impairment of keeping in conditions which give rise to tail biting is clearly the greatest of all in magnitude (severity x duration x no of animals) but I don’t think we have any way of comparing the welfare severity of ‘behavioural frustration’ against that of injury/pain. I would be concerned about taking arbitrary figures in the absence of any logical basis.
So, I guess my suggestion would be to explore the framework for this decision, but be very wary about pretending we can quantify it.
I also think the issue not addressed in your blog is the time course of any transition to cessation of tail docking and how to manage this. What proportion of farmers would have the awareness, capital and staff training to implement the changes necessary to their existing housing if obliged to cease tail docking (some older, fully slatted and large group housing systems will pose much bigger challenges and possibly require replacement of buildings), and how long would it take across Europe to reach the ‘acceptable’ situation of relatively low differential in tail-biting prevalence between docked and intact tails, rather than the ‘unacceptable’ differential shown for “one off” change in tail-docking experiments (stopping docking without further improvement of the environmental conditions). I think it important to highlight that your analysis relates to a ‘steady state’ situation and the importance of how any transition is managed and the welfare implications which this will have.
Note that I have not been comparing docking versus non-docking in a mono-factorial way. I compared docking in a more barren environment versus not docking in a more enriched environment supplemented with special attention by the farmer, as that is what will normally happen in practice. I have now emphasised this more clearly in the text.
I largely agree that we currently largely lack the data needed to quantify more precisely. However, I also believe that in principle it is possible to do so, and that the estimate/assessment can be more or less verified empirically (as the body of knowledge accumulates and modelling principles are improved). Personally, I am inclined to try and quantify despite considerable uncertainty, because it provides a better starting point for further discussion. In addition, such preliminary but more science-based estimates are much needed to complement the inevitably politically-loaded figures and personal assessments presented by farmer-representatives and NGO’s arguing either (rather exclusively) against or in favour of ending tail docking as a routine practice to prevent tail biting.
An important point I’ve been trying to make is that pain is not the only relevant aspect of welfare involved in tail docking and tail biting, and that the levels of enrichment and care should also be taken into account. I don’t think it is even possible to honestly say it is not possible to ‘add’ these aspects, since proper political decision making (in all kinds of areas, not just tail biting) simply does and has to, whether it is considered scientifically possible or not. And if so, I would argue it is most reasonable to try and provide the best possible scientific support, while being as honest as possible e.g. about uncertainty margins and the relevance of incorporating more information. I also think the estimate provides broad support to ‘farewell-dock’ initiatives such as those in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and Germany.
The FareWellDock factsheets are out. Below you find the cover factsheet as well as the factsheets on tail docking, enrichment, health and the prediction of tail biting. This post shows images of the English versions, and links to the pdf version of the English factsheets, as well as all factsheets in Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Italian, Norwegian and Swedish. Separate pages are available directly showing the factsheets in the other languages (Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, Italian, Norwegian and Swedish).
By M.S. Herskin, P. Di Giminiani, K. Thodberg, 2016. Research in Veterinary Science 108: 60–67.
Lidocain reduced signs of procedural pain during tail docking in piglets but did not affect behaviour during 5 h after the procedure.
Meloxicam had only very marginal effects on behaviour of the piglets during and up to 5 h after tail docking.
Tail docking led to behavioural changes throughout the 5 h observation period.
Tail docking length affected procedural and post-procedural behaviour of the piglets.
In many countries, piglets are tail docked to prevent tail biting. The aim of this study was 1) to evaluate the efficacy of a local anaesthetic and/or NSAID to reduce pain caused by tail docking; and 2) to examine interactions with docking length. This was examined in 295 piglets docked by hot iron cautery 2–4 days after birth and based on behaviour during docking as well as the following 5 h. The study involved three main factors: local anaesthetic (Lidocain), NSAID (Meloxicam) and docking length. Either 100%, 75%, 50% or 25% of the tails were left on the body of the piglets. Irrespective of the tail length, tail docking led to signs of procedural pain, which could be reduced by administration of Lidocain. Preemptive use of Meloxicam did not affect the signs of procedural pain. The results show that tail docking led to behavioural changes throughout the 5 h observation period indicating that effects of this management routine are more persistent than earlier suggested, and suggesting that docking length may influence the post-surgical behaviour of piglets. By use of the present sites of injection and dosages, neither local anaesthetic nor NSAID had marked effects on post-surgical behavioural changes induced by tail docking. Hence, if tail docking is to be performed, more research is needed in order to develop practical methods for on-farm piglet pain relief.
The practice of tail docking is applied to young piglets to avoid a potential later problem of tail biting. But are there effects of docking on piglets? Very few researchers have asked that question, found Dr Pierpaolo Di Giminiani, researcher at Newcastle University, UK.
Is a tail actually a sensitive part of the pig’s body? Dr Pierpaolo Di Giminiani thinks for a while and says, “That is a very good question! I would say it is not more or less sensitive than other parts of the body. The tail is full of neuro-anatomical structures responsible for the pain response. It is comparable to our human skin.” Unlike in many other animals, the pig’s tail may not have a wide range of functions. At best it serves to chase insects away and when in a curl, it gives an indication of the animal’s health. Still, when something happens to that tail, whether this be being docked or bitten, this body part responds like any other.
Dr Pierpaolo Di Giminiani is a research associate with a focus on ethology (animal behaviour) at Newcastle University, UK. During his graduate studies at Linköping University in Sweden, he studied the cognitive impairment caused by anaesthetic protocols in rodents. At his doctorate at Aarhus University, Denmark, he focused on the assessment of behavioural measures of pain in pigs as a result of cutaneous inflammation. Currently, he investigates pain in pigs in relation to the practice of tail docking in piglets and tail injuries in older pigs.
Tail docking – and especially the effects of tail docking on piglets – has been the focus of Di Giminiani’s studies since the beginning of 2014. They form part of the FareWellDock research programme, an international conglomerate funded by the European Union, zooming in on the common problem of tail biting, the preventive solution of tail docking, virtually common everywhere in Europe, and what can be done to overcome both. Especially tail docking of piglets is a practice which is increasingly frowned upon in some European countries. For more information on FareWellDock, see box below.
Di Giminiani’s studies have mainly centred on the question of whether piglets in the short and long term suffer from any pain from tail docking. In an interview with Pig Progress, Di Giminiani points to pain being a very complex experience and it being difficult to measure properly. He says, “I find it fascinating because there is a lot that we can do, especially in a species like the pig. A lot has been done in humans and laboratory animals and we now have the opportunity to apply novel techniques in other animal species. In addition, pain mitigation is often not provided or done so arbitrarily due to the lack of valid measures of pain in non-verbal animals. Therefore, it still remains one of the big open questions in research.”
Measuring pain in animals
In many other animal studies, Di Giminiani explains, research on pain sensitivity is fairly common. Before he set himself onto the theme of pain in piglets, an academic journey took him from his native Italy to San Diego, United States and later Linköping, Sweden, to learn and discover more on pain perception in laboratory rodents.
In pigs, however, everything was different, he says, as similar research appeared to be virtually absent in pigs when starting his PhD in Denmark at Aarhus University. Indeed, a bit strange, considering that pigs have an important role to play virtually all over the world – and considering the fact that from a medical perspective, pigs and humans are very similar.
The current research on pain sensitivity around tail docking in piglets at Newcastle University roughly revolves around three questions, Di Giminiani explains:
Is pain actually occurring or not and how long does it last?
What is the level of pain experience for piglets?
Based on the outcome, what can be done – for instance the use of painkillers?
Di Giminiani says, “Basically, there are 2 common methods to assess pain in animals:
To observe spontaneous behaviour. You just observe the activity of the animals, e.g. how much they walk – their locomotion – how much they lie, how much they stand, how do they drink, how do they eat, etcetera.
“Another method revolves around stimulus and reception – how do animals react to certain controlled challenges? We apply a controlled challenge to evoke a reaction.” This last method had not been applied in pigs a lot, but was used at Newcastle University to figure out short and long-term effects of tail docking on piglets.
Di Giminiani’s research team applied a gas-heated iron for tail docking, so that any wound would immediately be closed to avoid infections. He says, “In addition to measuring responses to controlled stimuli, we developed a grimace scale to measure the facial expressions of piglets. They do seem to grimace, particularly that they squint with their eyes in the minutes immediately following tail docking.” A full scientific paper related to the findings will be sent for publication in the summer of 2016.
For the last three sections of this interview (Pain in animals in the longer term; Does it matter?; FareWellDock) see the original article, as well as several related articles, on the Pig Progress site.