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Improving the wellbeing of sows can reduce piglet mortality

Under conventional conditions, the stress experienced by gestating sows can have a negative impact on the survival of piglets. To overcome these harmful effects, corrective strategies that procure improvements to the environment of animals can restore the wellbeing of sows and reduce neonatal mortality.

porcelets nouveaux nés. © Inra
Updated on 01/23/2019
Published on 10/29/2018

Piglet mortality is a major problem in the pig sector and has an important impact on the sustainability of livestock units. This mortality mainly occurs during and up to 72 hours after birth. Studies carried out in the context of the European ProHealth project (see insert) have been able to evaluate the impact of the rearing conditions of gestating sows on neonatal survival. A clear relationship was evidenced between the level of maternal stress and the survival rates of offspring. 

Quality of the environment, maternal stress, piglet survival: an inseparable trio

A first study enabled the comparison of sows housed during gestation under so-called conventional conditions (on a slatted floor, which is the case in most French livestock units) and sows reared on deep straw litter in a larger cubicle. The mortality rate of piglets between birth and weaning was higher under the conventional system (25.8% versus 16.7% on deep straw). The sows were less stressed under conventional conditions (higher levels of salivary cortisol at the end of gestation), and their average state of health was slightly less good (notably, more limping, more immune cells and more markers of oxidative stress).

Strategies to improve the wellbeing of gestating sows housed on slatted floors

A second study demonstrated that corrective strategies targeting slatted floors could reduce maternal stress and have a positive impact on early piglet mortality. Groups of gestating sows were reared under a conventional system with the presence of "toys" (objects to be manipulated, consisting of pieces of wood suspended on chains) and feed enrichment with straw pellets in their troughs. These sows presented with salivary cortisol levels that were intermediate between those of sows under a conventional system (highest levels) and those reared on deep straw (lowest levels). The survival rates of piglets were similar to those seen with the deep straw system.  
Enrichment with "toys" and and straw pellets enabled a reduction in the stereotypy of sows (repeated behaviours with no apparent objective, associated with discontent) and an increase in exploratory movements, both indicators of animal wellbeing. The scientists suggested that the straw or straw pellets eaten by the sows supplied a low-calorie, high-fibre supplement that enabled the animals to satisfy their increased appetite during gestation (gestating sows are not fed ad libitum so that they are not too fat when giving birth).

In the future…

The scientists are currently exploring the impact of these environmental enrichments on the suckling behaviour of sows and the quality of their first milk. This work has already offered interesting opportunities for actors in the pig sector regarding improvements to animal wellbeing.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Hélène QUESNEL et Nathalie LE FLOC’H INRA-Agrocampus Ouest, UMR PEGASE, Joint Research Unit for the Physiology, Environment and Genetics of Animals and Livestock Systems, 16 Le clos, 35590 Saint-Gilles
Partnership contact:
Xavier Vignon, Partnership and Innovation Manager (01 34 65 25 59)
Associated Division(s):
Animal Physiology and Livestock Systems
Associated Centre(s):


Logo projet Prohealth. © INRA

PROduction HEALTH – Sustainable Pig and Poultry Production
PROHEALTH is a programme that is exploring opportunities to improve the health of animals and the quality of production in pigs and poultry (table poultry, laying hens and turkeys).  It also aims to reduce the negative impacts of livestock units on the environment while preserving the profitability of the sectors concerned.
A European project under FP7, PROHEALTH is being coordinated by the University of Newcastle and involves a consortium of 22 partners from 11 European countries. This research project received one of the largest grants ever provided by the European Union in the field of animal production (€9 million, for a total eligible cost of €11.9 million).
For more information: PROHEALTH


  • Merlot E. et al. (2018). Sow environment during gestation: Part I. Influence on maternal physiology and lacteal secretions in relation with neonatal survival. Animal, sous presse.
  • Quesnel H. et al. (2018). Sow environment during gestation: Part II. Influence on piglet physiology and tissue maturity at birth. Animal, sous presse.
  • Quesnel H. et al (2018). Effet de l’enrichissement du milieu des truies pendant la gestation sur le stress maternel et la survie des porcelets.  Journées de la Recherche Porcine, 50, 275-280.
  • Pastorelli H. et al (2016). Effet de l’environnement des truies pendant la gestation sur leur comportement et la survie des porcelets. Journées de la Recherche Porcine, 48, 201-206.