A tale too long for a tail too short? : identification of characteristics in pigs related to tail biting and other oral manipulations directed at conspecifics

W.W. Ursinus

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


Ursinus, W.W. (2014). A tale too long for a tail too short? Identification of

characteristics in pigs related to tail biting and other oral manipulations directed

at conspecifics. PhD thesis, Wageningen University, The Netherlands.

Tail biting in pigs, i.e. the chewing on and biting in tails of conspecifics, is a

multifactorial problem leading to impaired pig welfare and health and economic

losses in pig farming. In many countries tail docking is used as a preventive

measure, but there is increased societal concern about this practice. Therefore,

there is an urgent need to understand, prevent, and reduce tail biting and other

damaging behaviours directed at pen mates. The main aim of this thesis was to

identify biological characteristics of barren and enriched housed pigs that relate

to their tendency to develop these damaging oral manipulative behaviours. Tail

biting started already early in life and pigs that displayed tail biting post-weaning

seemed to stem from litters in which tail biting behaviour was already present. The

onset of tail biting behaviour was different for individual pigs, and many pigs were

not consistently tail biters throughout different phases of life. It was difficult to

predict which pigs would develop tail biting based on their individual behaviour.

Groups of pigs with tail biting problems were, however, more easy to identify by

increased activity, and increased levels of pig and pen-directed oral manipulative

behaviours. Subjecting pigs to an individual behavioural test showed that tail

biters may be more fearful. Fearfulness in pigs appeared related to measures

of the brain and blood serotonergic system. Moreover, measures of the blood

serotonergic system seemed temporarily altered in tail biting pigs mainly during

the phase of life in which they displayed this behaviour. Additionally, (tail) biting

behaviour may be associated with higher (phenotypic and genotypic) production,

such as higher growth. Growth of individual pigs can be affected by the other

pigs in a pen. The heritable effect of one pig on the growth of another group

member is referred to as an indirect genetic effect. Pigs with a relatively negative

indirect genetic effect for growth displayed more biting behaviours, caused more

tail damage and destroyed more of the available jute sacks. The presence of strawbedding

or jute sacks as enrichment materials for rooting and chewing largely

reduced damaging biting behaviours and, consequently, tail damage. Pigs that

still develop tail biting behaviour in an enriched environment likely do so due to

a (temporary) physiological problem, whereas in barren housed pigs the lack of

suitable rooting and chewing material plays a large role. Tail biting behaviour

in pigs thus seems to be caused by a variety of temporary states and more

stable traits that influence their motivation to display foraging and exploratory

behaviours. Therefore, the tale of (tail) biting behaviours in pigs needs a better

understanding of underlying physiological processes. Preventing and reducing

damaging biting behaviours in pigs requires a joint effort of science, industry

and society to optimize housing conditions, feeding, management and breeding

of pigs.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Kemp, Bas, Promotor
  • Bolhuis, Liesbeth, Co-promotor
  • van Reenen, Kees, Co-promotor
Award date3 Oct 2014
Place of PublicationWageningen
Print ISBNs9789462570023
Publication statusPublished - 3 Oct 2014


  • pigs
  • tail biting
  • behaviour disorders
  • characteristics
  • fearfulness
  • animal welfare
  • genetic effects
  • growth rate
  • environmental enrichment
  • animal behaviour
  • animal physiology


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