How does environmental enrichment relate to disease resilience in pigs? If you answered “I have no idea”, full marks for honesty. As research continues on the Genome Alberta-led project to enhance disease resilience in pigs, a related study of the effect of environmental enrichment on the immune response could offer some valuable insights of its own.
“This study builds upon research data from the Netherlands showing that if pigs are raised in a highly enriched environment pre-weaning, then given a disease challenge post-weaning, they are able to clear the disease from their systems more quickly,” said Dr. Yolande Seddon, Assistant Professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan.
“The results showed that compared to pigs brought up in a more barren environment, the enriched pigs had enhanced immune response, making them less susceptible to disease.”
Research you can sink your teeth into
In this current study, funded by the Alberta Agriculture Funding Consortium and conducted at a research facility in Québec, they are working with a fully slatted flooring system to gauge the effects of point source enrichment. Point-source enrichment refers to enrichment objects that are generally limited in size and restricted to a certain area of the pen. Every 2 to 3 days, different chewable and rootable enrichment items are rotated through the pens, such as ropes, tarpaulins and hessian (burlap) sacks.“Our focus is having non-edible, novel enrichments that would engage the pigs and also possess the known properties that pigs find attractive, like being movable and chewable,” said Madelena Pedersen-Macnab, a fourth year Animal Science Major at the University of Alberta. “Items like the tarp are effective, as the large surface area allows more pigs to engage with it at once, facilitating social exploration of the enrichment.”
Though the final results won’t be available until next year, some initial observations show promise.
“In watching them on video, I see a lot more movement and changing of postures with the enriched pigs, and more engaging with other animals,” said Pedersen-Macnab. “There was also increased sternal lying versus lateral lying, which tends to be an indicator of greater comfort and contentment.”
Success with stress
“We are hypothesizing that since chronic stress impacts immune response, if the enrichment could help lower stress, it could influence the immune response,” said Dr. Seddon. “Not only can enrichment promote positive behaviour, it can also help to redirect negative behaviour.”
For the project led by Genome Alberta, the implications of this study could be significant.
“The Genome Alberta-led project is trying to identify the genetics of disease resilience in pigs,” said Dr. Seddon. “There is evidence already that we can modify pig behaviour, stress and immune response with enrichment, so if we can also modify gene expression through environment, that’s huge.”
For the industry, the study being conducted in Québec suggests that while we normally associate enrichment with animal welfare, it also has an important role to play in supporting pig health.
“If we can alter the immune response to a disease challenge, there is the potential to develop specific enrichment routines for barns that encounter high disease challenge,” said Dr. Seddon. “The next step is trying to modify our approach for a lower disease challenge and find a more manageable enrichment routine that could achieve the same effect. We also want to examine the role of edible enrichment, as suitable edible enrichment is good for the pigs.”
Environmental enrichment is now a requirement of the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, and for good reason. Based on studies like this, the implications of enrichment could be far-reaching. How far-reaching you ask?