The Bay Area’s relatively pet-friendly laws and amenities extend well beyond catering to the estimated 120,000 dogs in San Francisco alone. Exotic pets such as pigs, birds, rabbits, horses, and ferrets find welcome in the region, too, and their owners can get care for them through several exotic animal veterinary specialists within easy driving distance, as compared to other parts of the country where access to such vets can require many hours of travel.
Growing human populations often mean more households with pets, overcrowded shelters, and tight spaces at dog parks and other play areas. In the realm of exotic pets, pigs are somewhat unique in that many are comparable in size to common dog breeds, and their guardians sometimes exercise them as they would a canine, taking pigs out harnessed and leashed for walks in public spaces shared by dogs.
The issue? Dogs are predators and pigs are prey. Yes, it can be easy to forget that your 20-pound Cavalier King Charles spaniel bundle of joy is capable of stalking, attacking, and killing another creature, but it’s true—it’s a hard-wired instinct that varies in degree depending on the individual dog. Some breed groups, such as herding dogs, reportedly have higher predatory responses. This particular aspect of dogs isn’t quite as useful to the average pet guardian of today as it was to our human ancestors, but we love them anyway, and rightly so. Though this instinct is nearly an indelible trait of our canine companions, the prey drive, as well as interactions between dogs and exotic pets in the home and public realm, can be managed to reduce damaging outcomes.
“It’s a real problem. There are many earless pigs from dogs ripping them off,” said Chris Christensen, who, alongside Marcie Christensen, runs the California Pot-Bellied Pig Association based in Pleasanton.
There’s a reason why dried pig ear chews are ubiquitous at pet stores, after all. According to Christensen, many of the issues occur between pigs and dogs living in the same household; however, in high-density cities like San Francisco, where pig ownership is completely legal and backyards are small or nonexistent, pigs and dogs end up crossing paths along the sidewalk or out running free at parks.
“Most pigs just have their house and yard,” Christensen said. “When they go out, they’re on harnesses and leashes, because they can run very fast. With a pig, the biggest problem is that you can’t just get them under control by yanking on a leash. People should keep their dogs under control, but it’s your pig that’s going to wind up dead.”
Bonnie Morgan of Vallejo remembers a dog attack 10 years ago on her pet pig, Oliver, like it was yesterday. Morgan was accustomed to jogging with Oliver on streets in their neighborhood from the time Oliver was a mere piglet. When Oliver turned 5, Morgan was unaware of a newcomer to her neighborhood who was allowing his dog to run loose in the vicinity. One evening on a jaunt with Oliver, the roving dog attacked him, sinking his teeth into the back of the pig’s neck. Morgan used all her strength to pry open the dog’s jaws and restrained his neck with her forearm. Once she had the dog subdued, she told Oliver to run home, and he readily obeyed. Though Oliver made a complete physical recovery, he was never the same psychologically and exhibited high anxiety at the sight of any dog from that day forward.
Nearly 37-percent of U.S. households include a dog, but the number of pig households is minuscule by comparison. Nonetheless, a similar devotion experienced by dog lovers exists in the pig world, as pigs are found to be extremely intelligent, playful, and loving companions. Christensen is also a longtime dog lover whose heart was stolen decades ago when he was first introduced to pot-bellied pet pigs. Since then, he and Marcie Christensen have had several dogs and pigs in their household at the same time with varying outcomes. Their pit pull-Lab mixed breed for instance, never seemed to have an issue with their pigs, while a small terrier they had tore into one at the first opportunity.
“Our one dog has been around pigs all her life, but bringing in a new animal can upset the balance,” Christensen offered. “If you’re going to be away from home, you should really separate the animals.”
Christensen encourages people with large dogs to work with them and be realistic about their capabilities, as even when they’re on leash, once they get a whiff of a nearby pig, it can be stunning how quickly humans can lose control of the situation. For pigs, he recommends that they not be regularly walked in public. “You’re taking a risk by doing it. If you try to break up an attack, you’re likely to get injured and fail.”
While Christensen thinks pigs can do quite well in an urban environment, apartments aren’t best. It happens too frequently that people living in a third-floor apartment, for example, get a “teacup” pot-bellied pig that the breeders claim will stay under 40 pounds. The problem is that pigs don’t fully mature until they’re about five years old and then weigh 150 to 200 pounds. That’s about when Christensen gets desperate calls for help because pigs don’t handle stairs well and can become essentially imprisoned in their upper-level apartment. He says an ideal pig set-up is at least a 20-by-20 foot backyard with dirt and a fence high enough to keep out dogs.
Morgan is currently enjoying sharing life with her third pet pig, Frankie, who is just one of six certified therapy pigs in the country. Most weekends she takes Frankie to Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve for off-leash play. It is also a popular pooch destination. The dogs at the preserve so far haven’t posed an issue for Frankie, largely in part to Morgan’s proactive communication with the other humans. Before letting Frankie out of the vehicle, she speaks to everyone about his dog’s temperament and his comfort level with having a pig around. Frankie has become such a regular at the preserve that all the dogs know him and are relaxed in his company. However, Morgan is much more hesitant to take Frankie to other parks with dogs they don’t know to best avoid any potential incidents.
Meredith Stepita, D.V.M., a veterinary animal behaviorist, said predatory behavior is something that dogs are born with, and, because there’s a poor prognosis for changing it, management of the behavior is key. Exposure to animals of other species when dogs are young can help as well, but it’s not foolproof, and the primary socialization period for dogs is short, ending at between 12 and 14 weeks of age. There are also de-sensitization techniques and counter-conditioning therapies that can help reign in the predatory instinct, but Stepita cautioned that it should be done under the supervision of a veterinary behaviorist for the animals’ safety. For the average dog guardian, use of head collars such as gentle leaders and training the dog to maintain eye contact with their human are good ways to start, she said.
“I think the best thing is to try and set your dog up to succeed,” Stepita said. “If you know you’re going to be walking your dog where other animals are around, make sure your dog has learned to focus on you and has strong recall.”
From Christensen’s perspective, pot-bellied pig breeders aren’t doing enough education around this and many other issues including the “teacup” myth. For his part, he tries to tell people the dangers of having pigs and dogs in the same household.
Main article photo by: Eric Kilby-CC