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Do pigs engage in cannibalism?

Pigs are highly social and intelligent animals. They form close bonds with other members of their group. However, under certain conditions, pigs have been known to engage in cannibalistic behaviors, even going so far as to eat piglets. So what leads pigs to act this way, and how common is this behavior really?

What is cannibalism?

Cannibalism refers to when an animal eats another animal of its own species. It can occur for a variety of reasons, such as due to food scarcity, aggression, curiosity, or mental instability caused by stress. Cannibalism is relatively rare in the natural world, but has been observed in various animal species, including pigs.

Some key examples of cannibalism in the animal kingdom include:

  • Hamsters and gerbils may eat their young if they are stressed or the babies seem unhealthy.
  • Rodents like mice and rats will turn to cannibalism if extremely hungry.
  • Bearded dragons have been known to eat smaller dragons that are housed with them.
  • Male lions taking over a pride will sometimes kill cubs sired by the previous male.
  • Spiders and insects may eat females of their own species after mating.
  • Some fish like piranhas and barracudas will turn cannibalistic in times of scarce food.

So while not common day-to-day behavior, cannibalism can emerge in various species as a survival mechanism.

Evidence of cannibalism in pigs

There are documented cases of cannibalism among groups of pigs living in confined conditions. Some key examples include:

  • Sows consuming their own piglets shortly after birth.
  • Pigs tail biting and ear nibbling other pigs, sometimes eating them.
  • Pigs eating the carcasses of other dead pigs within the group.
  • Injured, sick, or prolapsed pigs being eaten by penmates.
  • Isolation of individual pigs leading to abnormal obsessive behaviors like cannibalism.

These cases primarily occur on industrialized pig farms where animals are kept in overcrowded pens. Improper housing conditions seem to be a major trigger.

Some research statistics on pig cannibalism include:

  • One study found 3% of piglet deaths on commercial farms were caused by cannibalism.
  • Another study reported a cannibalism rate of 1.87% for isolated pigs in farrowing crates.
  • Tail biting has been observed in 2-12% of commercially raised pigs.
  • Ear nibbling occurred at a rate of 11% in pens with minimal enrichment.

So while not fully commonplace, various forms of cannibalism have been documented among intensively farmed pigs.

What leads pigs to cannibalism?

There are several factors that can cause pigs to act aggressively and even cannibalize each other:

Stress from overcrowding

Pigs are highly territorial social animals. When overcrowded and unable to properly form a dominance hierarchy, pigs experience chronic stress. This can cause them to act aggressively. Pigs may bite or nibble on penmates as a way to alleviate frustration and anxiety.

Lack of space

Most pigs on commercial farms are kept in very confined spaces. Without adequate room to roam and forage, abnormal behaviors like tail biting are more likely to emerge. The lack of space also means pigs cannot escape aggression from penmates.

Poor diet

Pigs have complex nutritional needs. When fed low-quality feed lacking proper protein and minerals, pigs can act more aggressively and even try to bite and eat penmates to satisfy nutritional cravings.

Boredom and lack of stimulation

Pigs are intelligent animals requiring mental stimulation. In barren pens void of enrichment materials, pigs often redirect their natural foraging behaviors to abnormal activities like chewing on penmates. This can escalate to cannibalism in some cases.

Health issues

Sick, injured, or prolapsed pigs that do not receive proper treatment are at risk of being victimized by penmates. This is especially true if the pig is unable to return to the group dynamic.


Isolating individual pigs, such as sows in farrowing crates, can lead to abnormal behaviors and hyper-aggression from lack of socialization. Sows may consume piglets shortly after birth while confined this way.

Poor breeding and genetics

Selective breeding for fast growth and lean muscle mass has made some pigs more aggressive and stress susceptible. This can be a factor in tail and ear biting behaviors.

Early weaning

Early separation from the sow can cause behavioral issues in piglets. Some may develop abnormal suckling behaviors and nibble on littermates.

Temperature extremes

Heat or cold stress can cause pigs to pile together aggressively. If a piglet gets trapped at the bottom, penmates may bite and eat it.

Lack of supervision

Pigs exhibiting signs of aggression or abnormal behavior require intervention. Without proper management, injurious behaviors could escalate to cannibalism.

Preventing cannibalism in pigs

While concerning, pig cannibalism can be reduced through proper housing and management:

  • Provide adequate space per pig for comfort.
  • House pigs in social groups, not isolation.
  • Provide straw bedding for enrichment.
  • Give pigs outlets to root like hanging chains.
  • Feed balanced, nutrient-rich diets.
  • Quickly separate injured, sick, or bullied pigs.
  • Keep pens clean to avoid health issues.
  • Breed and select pigs with docile temperaments.
  • Avoid early weaning wherever possible.
  • Carefully regulate pen temperature.
  • Frequently observe pig behavior to spot problems early.

Following these measures can help curb stress and aggression to minimize abnormal behaviors like cannibalism.

Ethical concerns about pig cannibalism

The fact that pigs are cannibalizing each other raises serious ethical concerns about the conditions on industrial pig farms. Pigs are clearly under great distress if they resort to this behavior. Major reforms are needed to provide a more suitable environment where pigs can engage in natural social behaviors.

Specifically, the swine industry should transition away from:

  • Confined farrowing crates
  • Barren pens lacking enrichment
  • Selective breeding for rapid growth over welfare
  • Overcrowded living conditions
  • Early weaning of piglets
  • Lack of individual care for injured/sick pigs
  • Improper temperature regulation
  • Poor diet lacking variety

These industrial practices are linked to boredom, stress, and nutritional imbalance – key triggers for abnormal cannibalistic behaviors in pigs. More humane husbandry focused on natural pig behavior is needed.


In summary, pigs do sometimes resort to cannibalism and consuming each other. However, this is not normal pig behavior. Cases of cannibalism primarily emerge due to poor housing conditions on intensive pig farms. When kept in crowded, barren pens devoid of mental enrichment and proper care, pigs become stressed and prone to abnormal behaviors like tail biting and even eating each other.

The swine industry clearly needs to re-evaluate its practices and provide more suitable environments where this behavior does not occur. With adequate space, enrichment, socialization, diet, and veterinary care, pigs can live happily together without turning to cannibalism. So while cannibalism does occur in pigs, it can be curbed through more ethical, humane farming practices focused on promoting natural pig behavior.