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New EU project aims to reduce tail biting and docking in pigs

Scientists from eight countries are starting a research project on how to prevent one of the major behavioural problems on commercial pig farms: tail biting. The aim of the collaboration is to yield new knowledge which will help to remove the need for tail docking, the currently widespread preventive practice of cutting off part of the tails of young piglets..

Why do pigs’ tails get damaged?

Tail biting is a major problems in modern pig production, both in terms of animal welfare and production economy. This abnormal behaviour can have several causes, such as stress, illnesses, a poor indoor air quality or competition for food or water. Pigs have a strong innate behavioural need to explore their environment by chewing, biting, rooting and manipulating various objects and materials. When there are not enough exploration and manipulation substrates in a pen, the biting behaviour can get redirected to other pigs, especially ears and tails, which may result in tail biting.

In many European countries, tail docking – the practice of cutting part of the piglets’ tails at a young age – is used to control the problem. While this does reduce the risk of being bitten, it is a procedure that causes pain. It is also possible that, for the rest of their lives, damage to the tail nerves caused by docking may alter the sensitivity of the tail to touch. Some farmers, consumers, legislators etc. would like to stop the practice of tail docking and the EU pig directive states that tail docking can only be used if other means of preventing the tail biting behaviour have first been tried. In some countries, for example Sweden, Norway and Finland, the practice of tail docking already is banned. 

The FareWellDock project

The FareWellDock project is a three-year research project, started this autumn in eight countries: the UK, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and the USA. 

The research will be carried out in three complementary international researcher activities. One group will seek to develop improved measures to prevent tail biting. An essential part will be research into reasons for tail-biting outbreaks: which factors in the daily life on farms actually trigger this unnatural behaviour?

Another group will investigate what quantity of straw, or other chewing and rooting materials, would be sufficient to satisfy the pigs’ need to explore and therefore reduce tail biting risk, and how to improve the feasibility of using straw on farms with different manure systems.

The third group of scientists will focus on finding out what actually happens to the piglets that are tail-docked: how much pain piglets feel during docking, whether this results in longer-term pain and how this compares to the pain which is experienced by pigs which are tail bitten should an outbreak occur.

The project is led by Professor Anna Valros of the University of Helsinki in Finland. The other research institutes participating in the project are Scotland’s Rural College and Newcastle University in the UK, INRA in France, Aarhus University in Denmark, Wageningen UR Livestock Research in the Netherlands, SLU in Sweden, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science and USDA-ARS in USA. The project is part of the European Animal Health and Welfare ERA-net initiative (ANIHWA), which aims at increasing cooperation of national research programmes on the health and welfare of farm animals.

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Story source: FareWellDock news release, 15 Nov 2013

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