If dogs were kept in the same conditions as commercially produced pigs,
there would be a public outcry.
Despite being more intelligent than many dogs, pigs still have an undeserved reputation for being dirty, greedy animals.
Pigs originated from wild boar and were first domesticated as early as 10,000 years ago. Their adaptable omnivorous diet made them easier to keep than other species such as cattle. Originally of European descent, domestic pigs are now kept worldwide.
Spending their natural lives foraging for food, these animals suffer terribly when confined to small, barren areas. Worldwide, about 1.3 billion pigs are slaughtered each year for consumption with China producing around half. Traditional farming practices have given way to a large scale industrialisation as demand for ever cheaper meat increases.
Most pregnant sows are kept confined in individual stalls (gestation crates) for their 16 week pregnancy. This is a metal cage where the sow is unable to turn and struggles to stand or lie down. Deprived of all social interaction, the psychological as well as physical suffering that this causes has been proved in numerous studies. Food intake is also restricted causing chronic hunger and frustration.
Just before the sow is due to give birth, she is moved to a crate that only allows a bit more room for the piglets but leaves her unable to make a nest and bond naturally with her young. As early as 21 days later she is separated from her piglets, returned to her original stall, and inseminated again. This cycle runs for her entire life until she is sold for slaughter around the age of three.
The small piglets are raised in barren, cramped, and often dark conditions. With limited space, no bedding and no sunlight, aggression is common. Rather than alleviating the conditions which cause these unnatural behaviors, the piglets often have their teeth and tails clipped to reduce aggression related injuries. In addition to these procedures occurring without anesthesia, the males are often also castrated with no pain relief.
The final destination of these animals is the slaughterhouse which often requires traveling great distances. Pigs are unable to sweat and are very prone to heatstroke and an alarming number die on route from heat related illnesses.
While the situation seems dire for the pig, there are more humane alternatives available. Sow stalls have been banned in Sweden and the UK and from 2013, their use will be restricted throughout the EU. Encouragingly, they are being phased out in the New Zealand and Australia. Sadly there are no such plans in Hong Kong or China.
Improvements to the welfare of pigs can only come about though consumer demand. In response to consumer pressure in the UK for improved conditions, pregnant sows are increasingly being kept in groups and provided straw for bedding, rooting, and chewing. It is heartening to report that around 40% of all UK female pigs are provided a free-range existence and huts for birthing.
Even indoor pigs can be kept in conditions with higher welfare - in groups on solid floors with straw or other material for bedding and rooting. Even without access to the outdoors there are far greater opportunities to express natural behaviour, less aggression, tail biting and boredom. Deep bedded systems allow foraging and comfort and can still be commercially viable.
Food animals are every bit as sentient, every bit as capable of fear, pain and suffering and every bit worth respecting as our pet cats and dogs.