by Kathy Wolfe

October is National Pork Month, the perfect time for Tidbits to delve into the source of pork … pigs!

Pigs are one of the oldest domesticated animals, as long ago as 6,000 years. There are hundreds of different varieties of domesticated pigs. A typical domesticated pig that has avoided the slaughterhouse lives 15 to 18 years, but some live as long as 20 years.

It’s estimated there are as many as two billion pigs in the world on any given day. It doesn’t take long to produce a litter of piglets. The gestation period is an easy one to remember – 3 months, 3 weeks, and 3 days – a total of 114 days. The mother pig, or sow, can give birth to 8 to 13 piglets each time, twice a year, with each piglet weighing around 3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg) at birth. That baby’s weight can double in a week. Once weaned, the piglet will be known as a shoat.   

The weight range of pigs is broad, with an adult pig weighing anywhere between 110 lbs. and 770 lbs. (50 kg and 350 kg). The world’s smallest known pig breed is the Gottingen minipig, a breed developed in Europe. A typical adult of this breed weighs about 57 lbs. (26 kg).

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In 1933, Tennessee farmer Elias Butler raised a massive pig weighing 2,552 lbs. (1,157 kg). Butler named his Poland China breed hog Big Bill, which seemed fitting.

    Pigs’ sounds are much more than “oink, oink!” The sounds are everything from grunts and barks to squeals, coughs, and pants. Mother pigs grunt during feeding time, while barks might mean either danger or playtime. An anxious pig or one in pain will squeal, but will cough when annoyed. If you hear a pig panting softly, he’s trying to be friendly! Their sounds are so distinctive that piglets learn the tone of their mother’s voice at a very young age, and can recognize her call. Pig aficionados have identified at least 20 different noises the animals use to communicate with each other.

What’s the correct term for a group of pigs? It depends on their age. A group of piglets is a litter or farrow, but the group becomes a drove or drift when they are a little older. A group of older pigs goes by several different names – a sounder, passel, parcel, herd, or team. Males are boars, and females are sows, but a female that has never been mated is called a queen. If she has never been pregnant or is pregnant for the first time, she’s a gilt.    A castrated male is referred to as a barrow.

We’ve all heard the expression “sweating like a pig,” but it’s an inaccurate phrase, because pigs don’t sweat!    When they need to cool themselves, they wallow in mud, getting rid of body heat through their skin and respiration. Once the outside temperature reaches between 63 and 70 degrees F (17 to 21 C), they will seek out mud, frequently covering themselves from head to toe. Wallowing serves as a sunscreen for their tender skin, as well as a way to get rid of lice and ticks. It’s also a way of marking their territory.

Another erroneous phrase is “pigging out” or “eating like a pig.” They are slow-eating animals, savoring the taste, and easily digesting their food. Although pigs are omnivorous, meaning they will eat both plants and animals, the most popular pig farm diet is corn or soybeans.

Pigs can’t fly, but they can run and they can swim! A domestic pig can run up to 11 miles per hour (17.7 km/hr) while the wild boar can reach a speed of 15 miles per hour (24.1 km/hr). Pigs enjoy sunbathing and dipping in bodies of water to cool off. Some of the Caribbean Islands have designated places where humans and pigs can swim together!   

    It’s said that an elephant never forgets, but it’s actually pigs who don’t forget! They are believed to have a expansive memory that can recollect events from a young age. Pigs are extremely intelligent animals, perhaps smarter than dogs, and even a three-year-old human! They can be taught tricks just like a dog, and some learn their name more quickly than a dog does.

    A pig’s eyes are small and their eyesight is very poor, but that’s balanced by a keen sense of smell. They have nine different olfactory glands that enable them to recognize odors for finding food, looking for a mate, and assessing their surroundings. That sharp memory also helps them remember where they’ve found food before. And they really taste that food! A human has approximately 9,000 taste buds. The pig has an estimated 15,000!

    Not everything about pigs is good news, however. They can carry parasites and diseases that can prove fatal to humans. Roundworm parasites known as trichinella can live and reproduce in swine, and humans can get the infection by eating undercooked pork.    While most pigs are not aggressive, they have been known to charge and attack humans if they think their offspring are being threatened. Wild feral hogs cause upwards of $1.5 billion in damages to U.S. crops, forests, livestock, fences, and pastures every year. There are an estimated 5 million of this destructive species in 38 states today, with 2.6 million in Texas alone.

    A pig is sent to the slaughterhouse when it reaches between 250 and 300 lbs. (113 to 136 kg), around six months of age for most pigs. Besides the common culinary products – bacon, sausage, bratwurst, ribs, chops, and ham – there is a wide range of by-products made from pigs, as many as 185 products. Pork gelatin acts as a gelling agent in many types of candy and marshmallows. It’s used in beer, wine, and fruit juices to absorb the cloudiness of the beverages, as well as a stabilizer in whipped cream and cream cheese. Pork glycerin is an ingredient in toothpaste, shampoo, soaps, and lotions. A pig’s hair makes up many paint brush bristles, and is also included in some fertilizers and weed killers. In the medical world, because the human heart valve and that of the pig work similarly in structure and function, pigs’ heart valves are used to make heart valves for humans. A pig heart valve lasts around 15 years.