New study examines quality of life in mini pigs

mini pig
Photo courtesy Virginia Tech.

At the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, researchers want to examine which factors are important when miniature pig owners — also known as “pig parents” — measure their pigs’ happiness.

With the popularity of pet pigs on the rise, Sherrie Clark, professor of theriogenology and interim department head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, and Megan Shepherd, clinical assistant professor of clinical nutrition, began to wonder what people overlook when they think about their pet pigs.

“There’s been a lot of research on indicators that a pet dog or a cat is happy, healthy, and thriving, but with mini pigs, we don’t really have a standardized way to measure their quality of life,” Shepherd said.

“You can’t treat a pig like a dog with a different snout,” said Clark.

This may seem obvious, but Clark said it’s crucial to set appropriate expectations for people who want to incorporate a pet mini pig into their households.

“There are so many misconceptions about mini pigs. Potential owners really need to go into pig parenting with their eyes wide open,” said Clark. One of the misconceptions, she cites, is built into the very name — the truth is that “mini” pigs don’t stay mini.

“When we’re talking about mini pigs, we’re talking about a one- to two-hundred-pound animal. That’s ‘mini’ compared to a half-ton farm pig, but if your pig doesn’t want to cooperate with you, it’s not just a matter of picking her up and putting her into a crate.”

Clark and Shepherd partnered with Mazuri Exotic Animal Nutrition, a leading exotic animal nutrition company, to develop a survey tool to develop quality of life (QOL) in pet mini pigs.

According to Mazuri nutritionist Nichole Huntley, “With a lot of the exotic pets we cater to, there aren’t as many resources available to guide pet parents as there are with more common pets. Creating a standard QOL instrument that can be used for companion mini pigs was a natural extension of Mazuri’s aim to be an information resource and to help improve the wellbeing of pet pigs.”

Clark and Shepherd designed a simple questionnaire they hope will form the basis of a QOL instrument that can be used to facilitate communication between owners, veterinarians, and their pig pals.

For this study, healthy pet mini pigs aged 1 year or older have a single wellness visit, either at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital or as part of a farm visit. During the visit, the pig’s owner will complete a survey about their pig’s quality of life while some basic data is collected about the pig.

“We tried to make it as simple as possible for owners to participate,” Shepherd said. “The only extra thing they need to do is to complete the short questionnaire, which can easily be done during the wellness visit.”

Participants will receive a $100 discount off the cost of their appointment. The cost of any additional treatments or diagnostic procedures undertaken during the visit are not covered by the study.

Pig parent Lexi Vest of Earlysville, Virginia, participated in the study during a recent checkup for her 4-year-old mini pig, Alexander Hamilton, better known as “Ham.”

“He sleeps under a heated blanket all year round, and every spring, he’ll run over to our neighbors’ house and eat mulberries off their bush. It’s his favorite time of year. He can gain five pounds during mulberry season, just from gorging on the berries,” Vest said.

Vest, who also parents Ham’s “roommate,” a bulldog named Luna, emphasized the importance of understanding that pigs are different from other pets. “Their expressions are different from a dog’s. Your relationship with them will be different. I had to earn Ham’s respect, which has made our bond even tighter.”

The knowledge from this study will help facilitate better communication between veterinarians and pig parents so that mini pigs like Ham can lead their best lives.

To schedule your pet piggy patient for this quality of life study, call 540-231-1363 or email mindyq@vt.edu.

Story by Mindy Quigley. Quigley is a clinical research coordinator at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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