The Importance of Keeping Your Pig Hydrated

The Importance of Keeping Your Pig Hydrated

by Jenny Blaney

Many potbellies are simply not good water drinkers. I can sympathize. I certainly don’t drink eight, eight ounce glasses of water a day! Ugh! We may be missing something here when we consider this fact and the subsequent problems it can cause.

When in doubt – ask mother nature. It could be that in the areas of the world where the potbellies originated, their diet encompassed either aquatic vegetation or greenery with a much higher water content than the grasses we offer them today. We expect pigs to drink several times a day, when in their native country perhaps it was the norm for them to drink less frequently.

We flavor their water with Gatorade, cranberry juice, apple juice, etc. We float their food in water – in an effort to increase fluid intake. Yet it is unusual for many pigs to spontaneously, in the middle of the day and in-between meals, seek out the water dish and gulp down a couple cups of water. We need to ask mother nature: “Just what is the missing link?”

Poor hydration is definitely a problem in potbellies. This has become more and more apparent to me over the years. It is a problem in summer as well as winter. It strikes males and females, and pigs of all ages, except pigs under six months of age, unless there is another underlying medical consideration. It happens to pigs all over the world, on water from many different sources including bottled water. Pelleted feeds with a protein level higher than 12% often seem to exacerbate the problem. Some brands of feed are constantly included in this pattern of symptoms, while other brands are almost never involved. After ten years of gathering information, it is unclear to me, whether food or water intake is a more causative factor. I have concluded it is both.

Poor hydration in potbellies begins with very subtle signs, often undetected by owners and can occur gradually over a period of several hours or even days. Heat in summer and cold in winter encourage both house pigs and outside pigs to do what they do best – lay around! Outside pigs are particularly at risk due to effects of wind and sun. Fresh water may be in ample supply but for whatever reason the pigs do not drink enough on a daily basis. Some pigs can even become mildly hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) which is a condition we normally associate with newborn piglets, not adults.

Symptoms and Progression

The following is a list of symptoms most often reported to me by piggy owners.

  • Off feed for 12 to 24 hours
  • Lethargic
  • Lowered energy level
  • Depressed
  • Bloated
  • Shaking (pain)
  • Inability or unwillingness to stand and/or walk
  • Lowered body temperature (98 degrees or lower)
  • Elevated body temperature (101 degrees or higher)
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Vomits or gags when owner tries to force food or fluids
  • Fecal matter is hard, dry, small pellets instead of clusters of pellets. The pigs had produced less volume in the two to three days prior to the episode. Sometimes straining is observed.
  • Urine output has decreased over two to three day period. Again, sometimes straining is apparent.

This syndrome may only begin with only one or two of the above symptoms. If not addressed, it may progress to include most or all of them resulting in severe depression, hypoglycemia and possible urinary blockage or bowel impaction. Your veterinarian should be contacted immediately if any of the above symptoms persist for 24 hours or more.

In questioning owners in detail I find that the pig’s water intake has gradually decreased over a four to five day period preceding the incident. Urine output and frequency has decreased. Stool production has decreased and fecal matter is small, hard, dry individual pieces instead of the normal clusters that are stuck together. Often some straining is observed when the pig tries to urinate or move the bowel.

Activity level has dropped, the pig has become cranky and unwilling to readily eat or drink. Due to lack of food and fluid, the pig’s blood sugar level drops even further and the pig becomes mildly hypoglycemic. The pig becomes more weak and the vicious cycle is completed. There is nothing to void since the pig has taken nothing by mouth. Some owners have mentioned to me that their pigs have staggered when forced to get up and walk around.

Again, this is a gradual process over a period of days and symptoms are initially quite subtle. If your pig is showing any of the listed symptoms and they persist, contact your veterinarian immediately. Sometimes due to the size or location of the pig, unavailability of a vet, inclement weather, etc. it may not be possible to have a pig seen by a veterinarian immediately. In such a case, keep the pig at a temperature appropriate for the time of year and your geographic location. Make the pig as comfortable as possible without adding to its stress. (I have had several cases over the years, both in summer and winter, of a pig going “down” out in a field some distance from its housing. The pig weighs 200+ pounds and the owner cannot move it. Build a “house” around the pig with straw or hay bales and put a tarp or piece of plywood over the top. Leave space between bales for air in the summer – tighten up bales in winter.) If the pig is “down” in the house and refuses to get up, reduce light and noise and adjust bedding so the pig is at a comfortable temperature.

Take the pig’s temperature, if at all possible, before speaking with your veterinarian. This is a vital piece of information, so at least try. If nothing else, it is a way to get your pig on its feet and that in itself is important information. There is a big difference between unwilling to get up and being unable to get up!

Hint: If you “scratch” the region around the pig’s anus prior to inserting a lubricated thermometer and continue scratching, you will have a good chance of obtaining an accurate temperature.

Encourage fluid intake first. Pigs can go without food longer than they can go without fluid. Try the usual Gatorade (new melon flavor often works), juice and water mixed, or plain water with a touch to sweeten. Sometimes a shot of energy (honey) will be enough to get the pig on its feet. Try seedless watermelon – it’s natural, mostly water with a little sugar to raise energy level.

Never Force Fluids! If the pig readily takes in flavored fluid with coaxing, continue. Otherwise, do not force fluids into what could be an already full bladder. If the pig has been inactive for several hours (asleep all night), encourage the pig to get up and potty. Have a clean container on hand to catch a “mid-stream” urine sample. If the pig cannot be seen by a veterinarian immediately, at least you can take a urine sample, which along with a current accurate temperature reading, can supply valuable diagnostic information.


Both house pigs and outside pigs should be closely monitored during periods of extreme hot or cold weather. They should be encouraged, in some cases, forced to exercise enough to ensure appropriate body temperature, which in turn helps increase appetite and fluid consumption. Close attention should be paid to quantity and quality of urine and fecal output. Owners should be familiar with their pig’s “normal” stool. One of the very first symptoms of this syndrome is hard, dry stool, as opposed to a stool that glistens with moisture. It is not unusual to see fecal matter coated with mucous after a pig has been re-hydrated and recovered from this condition. This is due to stress put on the intestinal tract because of poor hydration.

Inactivity due to extreme hot or cold weather can lead to a lower metabolism rate which in turn can affect many bodily functions: rate of metabolism, rate of absorption of food and fluid, and rate of elimination. Perhaps one of the reasons I have not had reports of this happening to pigs under six months of age is the fact that their energy levels and metabolism rates are higher, and these young pigs are innately more active.

Close monitoring of your pig is important any time of year, not just during hot and cold spells. Some pigs are simply more active or sedentary than others depending on temperament. Pigs are great opportunists and relish being catered to and waited upon. However, for the pig’s own good, she should have to “work” for food and her daily schedule should be tailored as much as possible to necessitate daily exercise and activity. Pigs in the wild are forced to forage for food and so are more consistently “on the move.” If your pigs is a “house pig”, make part of her daily routine time spent outside where she can get exercise and sunshine. Try scattering your pig’s food on the ground, on a concrete floor (garage), in a rooting box, or even on the kitchen floor. It may not be convenient, but better an active pig than a “down” pig. Provide stimulation in the form of toys, people, other animals – even another pig. Anything you can think of that will increase your pig’s activity level will contribute to you pig’s overall health and quality of life. Some pigs don’t make this easy for us, but then part of the reason we love them is because of the challenge they present.

I can’t emphasize enough how gradual, subtle, and insidious of the progression of this syndrome can be. Symptoms in some pigs can be on-going for weeks or even months; and, if left unaddressed, can result in life-threatening emergencies: complete/incomplete urinary blockage with or without stones, or bowel obstruction or impaction. The two most important tip-offs to watch for early on are:

  1. A change in appearance and texture of feces
  2. A change in temperament to crabby, cranky, whiny

When a pig goes “down” or acts “off”, there are six factors to consider:

  1. Body temperature
  2. Respiration
  3. Food intake
  4. Fluid intake
  5. Urine output
  6. Fecal output

Is everything going in and coming out properly?

You, the pig owner, know this best and you are best equipped to pass this information along to your veterinarian. Usually, unless there is some organ dysfunction, or a problem has come from an outside source such as inappropriate food or an injury, one or more of these six basic functions will be involved. While diagnosis should always be left up to veterinarian, monitoring these six basis functions will better enable the pig owner to pick up on any deviation early on and then to take appropriate action. Any time a problem is seen in any one of these areas, your veterinarian should be contacted at once. A urinary or intestinal blockage can be a critical medical problem requiring immediate veterinary intervention.

If you have any questions please call Jenny Blaney 518-747-3494