Lower birth weight and attenuated adrenocortical response to ACTH in offspring from sows that orally received cortisol during gestation

G. Kranendonk, H. Hopster, M. Fillerup, E.D. Ekkel, E.J.H. Mulder, V.M. Wiegant, M.A.M. Taverne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Prenatal stress is known to affect several offspring characteristics, but its effects depend among other factors on the period of gestation in which it is applied. In the present study, oral administration of hydrocortisone-acetate (HCA) was used to elevate cortisol concentrations in pregnant sows to levels also observed after psychological stress. HCA was administered during three different periods of gestation (115 days in pigs): period 1: 21¿50 (P1, n = 10), period 2: 51¿80 (P2, n = 10) and period 3: 81¿110 (P3, n = 10) days after insemination. Control sows (n = 11) received vehicle from 21¿110 days after insemination. When P1-, P2- and P3-sows did not receive HCA, they also received vehicle. During gestation, weekly saliva samples were taken from the sows to determine salivary cortisol concentrations. Treatment effects on sow, litter and piglet characteristics were determined. In addition, two female piglets per litter were subjected to an ACTH-challenge test at 6 weeks of age to determine the adrenocortical response to ACTH. Pigs were slaughtered at 6 months of age and slaughter weight, back fat thickness and percentage of lean meat were analysed. During the period of treatment with HCA, salivary cortisol concentrations were increased in P1-, P2- and P3-sows compared to control sows (P <0.01). The total number of piglets born per litter did not differ among treatment groups (P > 0.30), but pooled HCA-litters had a higher percentage of live born piglets (P <0.05) and fewer mummies than control litters (P <0.05). Gestation length did not differ among treatment groups (P = 0.21), but did affect treatment effects on birth weight. Overall, HCA-piglets weighed less at birth, and remained lighter until weaning (P <0.05). The salivary cortisol concentrations after i.m. injection of ACTH (2.5 IU/kg) were lower in P1- and P3-piglets compared to control piglets. At slaughter, HCA-treatment indirectly decreased lean meat percentage and increased back fat thickness. In conclusion, elevated peripheral cortisol concentrations in pregnant sows affect both litter characteristics and piglet physiology, the latter depending on the period of gestation during which concentrations were elevated. Underlying mechanisms require further investigation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)218-238
JournalDomestic Animal Endocrinology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2006



  • pituitary-adrenal axis
  • beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase
  • prenatal stress
  • 11-beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase
  • glucocorticoid exposure
  • adult-rats
  • growth restriction
  • fetal maturation
  • blood-pressure
  • genetic merit

Cite this