Experimental evidence suggests health benefits can be obtained from welfare improvements. Animal welfare scientist Laura Boyle from Teagasc, Ireland, believes there is an important link between health and welfare of pigs.
During the recent Pig Welfare Symposium, Boyle discussed the interrelationship between pig health and welfare and implications for antibiotic use.
“The risk factors for poor health are very similar to the risk factors for poor welfare,” Boyle says. “Any efforts made to address your disease burden on the farm will have advantages for pig welfare and vice versa.”
With the global threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and the associated mis- and over-use of antibiotics in pig production as well as unprecedented levels of societal concern about animals in intensive production systems, Boyle says there there’s an urgent need for more research in the area of animal health and welfare.
“Well-documented health and welfare problems for pigs crosscut these issues and yet research on their interrelationship is only recently being undertaken,” she says. “There is much anecdotal evidence supporting a link between pig health and welfare particularly in relation to damaging behaviors.”
For example, on-farm and factory-based studies show associations between health problems such as respiratory disease and tail biting, she explains.
“I know in talking to Irish pig producers, they feel overwhelmed. Right now, there are a lot of demands put on them to rear pigs with long tails as tail docking is prohibited,” Boyle says. “We’re having a huge clampdown on antibiotic use and even the use of zinc oxide in post weaning diets. They feel overwhelmed about tackling everything at the same time.”
A natural extension to One Health
Although good health is not necessarily synonymous with good welfare, Boyle says the One Welfare concept presented at the symposium by Rebeca García Pinillos is a natural extension to the One Health concept.
“We know that in order to make progress in antimicrobial resistance, we have to address antimicrobial use in the environment, in human medicine and in animal agriculture. I see welfare as a simple extension of that because it talks about the interrelationship between welfare of humans, animals and the environment,” Boyle says.
Given the many shared risk factors, she believes changes to management and housing to improve pig welfare will also likely improve pig health and vice versa.
For example, reducing stress improves immune function and increases resistance to infection. She says other health benefits from improved welfare are likely because of behavioral plasticity and changes in the gut microbiome/ gut-brain axis.
“There is great promise in higher standards of animal welfare as a potential drug-free way of improving animal health with numerous other associated benefits both to society as well as to the pig industry,” Boyle says.
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