A Lifetime of Confinement: The Secret Suffering of Mother Pigs

For most of their short lives, mother pigs in factory farms are subjected to egregious abuse. They are kept in cages—gestation crates during pregnancy and farrowing crates after giving birth—that are barely larger than their bodies. This cycle repeats until they are slaughtered.

Gestation Crates

First introduced in the 1960s, gestation crates are used to confine most of the six million pigs used for breeding in the United States during their pregnancies. Measuring around seven by two feet, these metal cages are only slightly larger than the animals themselves.

Pigs are considered ready for breeding at just seven months old. The majority of pigs in the United States are forcibly impregnated through artificial insemination. A rod is inserted about eight or 10 inches into a pig’s body to reach her cervix. After being bred, the pigs are put in gestation crates.

The crates prevent these sensitive, intelligent animals from turning around, walking, socializing, or even lying down comfortably. Trapped between metal bars, mother pigs in factory farms are unable to engage in many of their natural behaviors, such as rooting, building nests, grazing, and sleeping in the sun. The conditions are so horrific that Bernard E. Rollin, a distinguished professor at Colorado State University, said:

I have personally witnessed ordinary people’s response to their first experience of these crates, and have seen eminent academics emerge from a sow barn unabashedly in tears.

Pregnant pigs have no choice but to relieve themselves where they stand, unable even to walk away from the smell of their own feces. Some animals have been known to gnaw at the bars of their enclosures in stress and frustration. And according to the United States Department of Agriculture, these crates have also been associated with reduced heart function and weakened bones in pigs.

Despite repeated public outcry over these inhumane crates, the pork industry continues to use them. Dave Warner, a spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council, famously said:

So our pigs can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.

Farrowing Crates

Pregnant pigs are moved to farrowing crates about a week before giving birth. They live in these crates during the birth of their piglets—known as farrowing—and remain there for another 21 to 28 days as they nurse their babies. Like gestation crates, farrowing crates are so small that mother pigs are unable to turn around and can barely take even one step forward or backward. Sometimes, the flooring can also cause sores on their feet, legs, and udders.

Piglets Farrowing Crate

In the wild, a pregnant pig can walk for miles in search of a perfect, safe place to nest. She will spend hours gathering vegetation and creating a cozy bed for her babies. A few days after giving birth, a mother pig will leave her babies for short periods to forage for food. When her babies are between nine and 10 days old, they begin foraging with their mother and being integrated with the larger group of pigs.

baby piglet with mother pig

None of these natural behaviors are possible when mothers and babies are confined to farrowing crates. Frustrated at their inability to nest, pigs sometimes paw at the floor and push at the crate bars—at times to the point of wearing down their hooves and suffering abrasions on their noses. Seaton Hall Baxter of the North of Scotland College of Agriculture stated:

The entire rationale upon which conventional farrowing pens are designed and used needs to be question[ed]. … Crate farrowing is also an “unnatural” method of animal exploitation inasmuch as it attempts to suppress rather than exploit the animal’s own biological adaptations.

Once they are born, piglets are kept in a “creep” area, which is attached to the mother pig’s crate. While piglets are able to nurse, the cage bars prevent mother pigs from interacting as they would naturally. Piglets generally sleep on hard concrete, with only a heat lamp or mats to substitute the warmth of their mother. 

Piglets are taken away from their mothers after just three weeks. Pigs have a maternal instinct to protect their piglets, but the bars of farrowing crates restrain the mothers as workers take their babies away. Pigs are then impregnated again after a mere five to seven days. According to the American Meat Science Association, female pigs can produce up to three litters per year. This heartbreaking cycle repeats until the mother pig is slaughtered for meat when she is three or four years old.

Banning the Crates

The first countries to ban cruel gestation crates were Sweden and the United Kingdom in the 1990s. They are now illegal throughout the European Union, as well as in Tasmania, New Zealand, and Australia. Although gestation crates remain common in the United States, states like Florida, Arizona, Oregon, California, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Maine, and Rhode Island have enacted laws banning them.

Of course, we can always make a difference for mother pigs—and all animals!—by eating more plant-based meals. Download a FREE veg starter guide for plant-based tips.