Therapy Pigs in Airports: Now’s Not the Time

Everyone’s talking about LiLou. This beloved first-ever airport therapy pig has been bringing joy to travelers in the San Francisco Airport. With her charming antics and good looks, she’s quite the head turner and anxiety-easer. 

It’s hard to deny the novelty of it all.

But with all of the foreign animal disease pressure throughout the world right now, we should not be using pigs as airport therapy animals. 

African swine fever (ASF) continues to ravage other parts of the world and poses a very real risk to the U.S. pork industry. This deadly virus that impacts both wild and domestic pigs is highly transmissible among pigs, though it poses no threat to human health or any risk to food safety. Although humans can’t get ASF, they can bring the disease over from an ASF-positive country on their shoes, clothing or in food products. All it takes is unfortunate timing and a little bad luck for the virus to cross paths with a therapy pig at the airport.

According to a spring 2019 study conducted by the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain, the risk of ASF introduction into the U.S. via airports has increased 183%.

It’s important to remember this isn’t the risk of pigs getting sick – it’s the calculated risk of contaminated product getting through the airport, past customs. Planting airport therapy pigs in harm’s way of this virus – and the impact it could have on the U.S. is unwise.

Is it a huge risk? Some say it is, some say it’s not. But putting LiLou in the line of fire at an airport where travelers are coming in from all over the world doesn’t make sense to me. 

Dave Pyburn, National Pork Board vice president of science and technology, says although the use of airport therapy pigs will likely not result in an ASF outbreak in commercial, feral or backyard swine in the U.S (assuming pigs are housed at the airport in between “work” or passenger contact periods),  if one of these pigs were to turn up positive or die from ASF, U.S. trade partners would likely treat the country no differently than if we had an outbreak elsewhere in the U.S.

“They would likely stop all U.S. swine and pork exports immediately and for a lengthy period of time,” Pyburn says. “Right now, ASF virus is the fastest spreading foreign animal disease in the world. Swine are the only susceptible species to being infected with the virus.”

If you weigh out the risks to U.S. agriculture, we shouldn’t choose swine as the animal to interact with international travelers and the baggage that they are carrying, especially at an airport with direct flights with ASF-positive countries. 

“I think maybe the choice was made without full consideration of the potential implications for U.S. agriculture,” Pyburn adds.

With so many great therapy animal options available from dogs to cats to goats, let’s avoid putting swine into that challenging situation. With the global spread of this economically devastating disease, find other animals for these important jobs. Not only is this the best choice for the therapy pigs, but it is also the best choice for our country and the U.S. swine industry. 

More from Farm Journal's PORK:

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Research Brief: Could African Swine Fever Make its Way into the U.S.?

Traveling Abroad? 5 Ways You Can Protect the Pork Industry