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April 25, 2022

Since 2021, painful castration without anesthesia has been banned in piglets, and possible alternatives are still under discussion.

The castration of piglets without anesthesia and its prohibition has been discussed for years in politics and in public. The voices of actors from agriculture and animal production as well as those of animal welfare organizations have a major influence. Although animal welfare plays an important role in the debate in Germany, the influence of the agricultural lobby in the field of "livestock policy" is immense. In 2018, it was able to effect an extension of the deadline for the entry into force of the ban (1).

Since 2021, farms are not allowed to castrate piglets without anesthesia. The alternative methods for anesthesia-free piglet castration will remain part of the debate and will continue to be relevant for animal welfare work in the future.

(1) Grunenberg, M. (2018). Von Sinn und Unsinn der Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration: Kommunikationseffekte in der deutschen Nutztierpolitik am Beispiel einer aktuellen Debatte. Kiel: Self-Publishing of Department of Agricultural Economics, Kiel. (= Working Papers of Agricultural Policy).

What is the current situation in Germany?

Since January 1, 2021, a ban prohibits castration of piglets without anesthesia, which is usually carried out in the first week of life. The German Animal Welfare Act was amended in 2013 to put an end to this practice (2).

Castration is done to avoid the so-called “boar taint” that male animals can develop. Some people perceive this smell in the flesh and find it unpleasant. The fact that the castrated piglets are less aggressive and dominant is a welcome side effect for the farms (3).

Aggression and dominance are part of the species-typical social behavior, but can lead to serious injuries due to the lack of space in agricultural holdings (4).

Until the amendment of the German Animal Welfare Act 2013, the piglet castration without anesthesia was exempted from the amputation ban and was carried out routinely in Germany. When scientific investigations proved lasting pain for the piglets due to the anesthetic intervention, the new German Animal Welfare Act decided to ban this practice. The companies had a transitional period until the first of January, 2019 (5).

Despite years of opportunity to prepare, the agricultural lobby and farms considered alternative methods unavailable until shortly before the end of this period. The politicians reacted and decided to extend the deadline by another two years (6).

If you click [SHOW SENSITIVE CONTENT], you will see a piglet piglet being castrated.

(2) Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. (2021, 16.03.). Ausstieg aus der betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration.

(3) Bonneau, M., & Weiler, U. (2019). Pros and cons of alternatives to piglet castration: Welfare, boar taint, and other meat quality traits. Animals, 9(11), 884.

(4) Ekesbo, I., & Gunnarsson, S. (2018). Farm animal behaviour: characteristics for assessment of health and welfare. CABI.

(5) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(6) German Bundestag (2018). Fristverlängerung bei Ferkelkastration. Parlamentsnachrichten.

What alternative methods are there?

In the following chapter we give an overview of the common alternatives to piglet castration without anesthesia based on relevant and current scientific publications.

Boar fattening

The simplest alternative to castration is not intervening in the physical integrity of boars and allowing pigs to remain intact. However, according to animal welfare assessments, the farms have to adapt their management - from housing, to transport, to the waiting area in the slaughterhouse (7). The boars are more active and more able to live out species-typical behavior, like rank fights. Without castration, the risk of injury is therefore higher (8).

However, the seeming necessity for  additional effort in the adaptation of management is only due to the current conditions of husbandry. Castrated pigs are quieter and could therefore be kept in ever smaller pens with more animals. This approach has to be reversed.

Various authors (9), (10), (11), (12) therefore recommend:

● smaller and stable groups without frequent changes, so that the pigs can form a ranking faster

● more space available (10 percent)

● Offer of manipulable material

● Sex segregation to prevent pregnancies

Although a study did not find any new rank fights after the removal of some animals from the groups (13), the German Friedrich Loeffler Institute (FLI) also warns against the above-mentioned risks. Under the "prevailing husbandry conditions", boars could seriously injure each other by fighting and climbing, especially towards the end of the mast (14).

Immunocastration

Vaccination against boar taint is a method that has been used in various countries for over 20 years and has been approved in the European Union since 2009 (15). The animals are vaccinated twice in the fattening phase (16). Immunocastration suppresses the hormone formation responsible for the boar taint (17).

The burden on the animals here is limited to the injections and it does not seriously interfere with the boar’s physical integrity (18). This can change, however, if the animals live in larger groups or in outdoor enclosures, where they are additionally stressed by the catch (19).

In addition to the German Federal Veterinary Surgeons`Association (20), the Friedrich-Loeffler-Insitut also recommends immunocastration in a statement: "From an animal protection point of view [vaccination against boar odor is] therefore by far the most suitable alternative to anaesthetic piglet castration" (21). As a justification, the lower burden of the animals by short-term fixation and the injection puncture were also mentioned here.

Inhalation anesthesia

Surgical castration under inhalation anesthesia with isoflurane has been approved for pigs in Germany since 2018. According to the Piglet Anaesthesia Competence Ordinance, farmers are allowed to carry them out themselves. However, this means that the animals cannot be treated by a veterinarian in the event of anesthesia incidents (22).

In this method, the piglets must be manipulated twice. Once for pain relief injection for postoperative pain and once for castration. They are placed in a special apparatus and clamped. A mask is placed over the mouth and nose, and isoflurane is fed in. After a few seconds the piglet experiences a complete loss of consciousness. Following the castration, the piglets quickly wake up and are able to move (23)

For effective anesthesia, it is necessary that the apparatus matches the size of the piglets (24). In addition, an individual dosage and sufficient duration of anesthesia introduction is crucial (25).

Injection anesthesia

With the help of the injection anesthesia, the piglets are placed under general anesthesia for surgical castration. Anesthesia must be carried out by veterinarians, who can intervene quickly at least in case of anesthetic incidents (26).

An appropriate application completely eliminates pain perception (27). However, because the piglets are only a few days old at the time of the procedure, the metabolization of the drugs is restricted due to the still incomplete liver and kidney function and carries a risk for the piglets in the context of anesthesia (28).

Another disadvantage of this form of anesthesia is the long post-sleep period, which is why the piglets must be separated from the mother for at least three hours. This is to prevent the sow from crushing them unintentionally. During this time there is a risk that the piglets will lose too much body heat. The Piglets also miss several meals with the mother, which can lead to rank fights between the siblings at the teats (29), (30). Postoperative observation is very important due to the risk of hypothermia and injuries (31).

A piglet cuddles on the body of a sow in the farrowing pen. In the background, more piglets run in the pen.
©Stefano Belacchi / Essere Animali / We Animals Media

(7) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(8) Blaha, T., Knees, M., Müller, K. & Verhaagh, M. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration. Bonn: Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (BLE).

(9) Blaha, T., Knees, M., Müller, K. & Verhaagh, M. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration. Bonn: Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (BLE).

(10) Harter, V. (2017). Vergleichende Verhaltensbeobachtung bei männlichen chirurgisch kastrierten, immunokastrierten und unkastrierten Mastschweinen (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(11) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(12) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(13) Bünger, B., Zacharias, B., & Schrade, H. (n.d.). Agonistische Interaktionen bei rein-und gemischtgeschlechtlicher Ebermast. Leipziger Blaue Hefte, 612.

(14) Mettenleiter, T. C., Schwarzlose, I., Krause E. T. & Schrader, L. (2018). Impfung gegen Ebergeruch - tierschutzfachlich der beste Weg. Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut, Bundesforschungsinsitut für Tiergesundheit, Greifswald - Insel Riems.

(15) Blaha, T., Knees, M., Müller, K. & Verhaagh, M. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration. Bonn: Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (BLE).

(16) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(17) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(18) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(19) Čandek-Potokar, M., Škrlep, M., & Zamaratskaia, G. (2017). Immunocastration as alternative to surgical castration in pigs. Theriogenology, 6, 109-126.

(20) Federal Veterinary Surgeons` Association. (2018, 06.10.). Gemeinsam für den Tierschutz. Tierärzte sagen “Nein!” zur Verlängerung der betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration. Gemeinsame Presseinformation mit Tierärztliche Vereinigung für Tierschutz e.V. und Deutsche Veterinärmedizinische Gesellschaft e.V.

(21) translated by the author: Mettenleiter, T. C., Schwarzlose, I., Krause E. T. & Schrader, L. (2018). Impfung gegen Ebergeruch - tierschutzfachlich der beste Weg. Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut, Bundesforschungsinsitut für Tiergesundheit, Greifswald - Insel Riems.

(22) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(23) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(24) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(25) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(26) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(27) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(28) Harter, V. (2017). Vergleichende Verhaltensbeobachtung bei männlichen chirurgisch kastrierten, immunokastrierten und unkastrierten Mastschweinen (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(29) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(30) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(31) Bonneau, M., & Weiler, U. (2019). Pros and cons of alternatives to piglet castration: Welfare, boar taint, and other meat quality traits. Animals, 9(11), 884.

Economic considerations

Since economic considerations also affect agricultural holdings, the Thünen Institute of Farm Economics compared the economic viability of the alternatives in 2019. The researchers found that all fattening farms would be just as profitable in the medium term when using boar fattening and immunocastration as before.

In the area of sow keeping, in which the piglets would be castrated, the study showed lower profitability with the inhalation and still more clearly with the injection anesthesia. To a certain extent, the costs of inhalation anesthesia could be offset by subsidies for the purchase of equipment.

The conclusion of the study is that, from an animal welfare point of view, boar fattening (leaving pigs intact) and immunocastration perform best and are therefore most suitable from the point of view of costs and benefits (32).

(32) Verhaagh, M., & Deblitz, C. (2019). Wirtschaftlichkeit der Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration–Aktualisierung und Erweiterung der betriebswirtschaftlichen Berechnungen (No. 1422-2019-1565). Thünen Institute of Farm Economics.

Special case local anesthesia

Local anesthesia is also under discussion when it comes to alternatives to castration without anesthesia. The piglets are fully conscious during castration and are only stunned locally in the area of the testicles. Procain is the only local anesthetic approved for pigs (33).

Current scientific consensus is that local anesthesia does not eliminate pain and therefore does not meet the requirements of the Animal Protection Act. In addition to the pain from castration, the injections for the piglets are already very painful (34), (35).

Nevertheless, research on local anesthesia continues, as recent publications show. A comparison of two local anesthetics procaine and lidocaine shows, due to various stress parameters such as cortisol release and defensive reactions, no complete pain elimination during castration. Clear stress reactions indicate that even the injection of procaine is painful for the piglets. Overall, the stress reactions during castration are comparable with procaine or even higher than without anesthesia. However, lidocaine also causes only a small reduction in the castration-related stress reaction (36).

Another study using other stress parameters confirms these results. She therefore concludes that other methods such as boar fattening (leaving pigs intact), immunocastration, or general anesthesia for surgical castration must be used in the future (37).

Other studies also come to similar results. In addition to procaine and lidocaine, other local anesthetics were examined for their effect. In all cases, none of the drugs used led to pain elimination (38), (39), (40).

The studies consider different drugs, dosages and injection sites and come to the same results with regard to pain elimination. They thus confirm the findings of previous studies (41), (42), (43). Nevertheless, research on local anesthesia continues. Especially at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, research projects are still being funded and carried out.

(33) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(34) Blaha, T., Knees, M., Müller, K. & Verhaagh, M. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration. Bonn: Bundesanstalt für Landwirtschaft und Ernährung (BLE).

(35) Steffen, L. (2020). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration (Doctoral dissertation, Hochschule Neubrandenburg).

(36) Hofmann, K. (2019). Schmerz-und Stressbestimmung bei der Injektion und Kastration von Saugferkeln unter Lokalanästhesie mit Procain und Lidocain mittels Kortisol und Chromogranin A sowie Wundheilung, Gewichtsentwicklung und Saugferkelverlusten (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(37) Rauh, A. (2019). Untersuchung der Schmerz-und Stressreaktionen bei der Injektion und Kastration von Saugferkeln unter Lokalanästhesie (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(38) Abendschön, N. S. (2021). Vergleichende Untersuchung der Wirkung von Lokalanästhetika bei der Saugferkelkastration anhand des Abwehrverhaltens sowie die Erfassung von Nebenwirkungen (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(39) Saller, A. M. (2021). Evaluation der Wirkung von Lokalanästhetika bei der chirurgischen Ferkelkastration unter Isofluran-Narkose anhand der Auswertung von klinischen und labordiagnostischen Parametern (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(40) Schwennen, C., Dziuba, D., Schön, P., Kietzmann, M., Waldmann, K. H., & Altrock, A. V. (2020). Lokale Anästhesieverfahren zur Schmerzreduktion bei der Saugferkelkastration. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 133.

(41) Zankl, A. (2007). Untersuchungen zur Wirksamkeit und Gewebeverträglichkeit von Lokalanästhetika bei der Kastration männlicher Saugferkel (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(42) Zöls, S. (2006). Möglichkeiten der Schmerzreduzierung bei der Kastration männlicher Saugferkel (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(43) Kluivers-Poodt, M., Houx, B. B., Robben, S. R. M., Koop, G., Lambooij, E., & Hellebrekers, L. J. (2012). Effects of a local anaesthetic and NSAID in castration of piglets, on the acute pain responses, growth and mortality. Animal, 6(9), 1469-1475.

What does the procedure mean for the piglets?

The piglets are not castrated for medical reasons, but for reasons of marketing (boar taint) and housing (44). Surgical castration is a serious and painful intervention in physical integrity and is not in the interest of the animals.

The resulting pain can be compared to human pain due to similar physiology and anatomy (45). They undoubtedly affect the welfare of animals.

The stress of separation from the mother is also to be considered, piglets are nervous and active while looking for their mother. The stress of separation leads to negative emotions (46).

They call for their mother with special "isolation cries". The longer the last meal is, the stronger the calls and obviously the urge to return to the mother (47). The needs of the piglets are clear, but are not taken into account.

The piglets also influence each other. A study on behavioral changes in piglets, some of which have been castrated and others have only been caught, shows that negative emotions can pass through castration to siblings who have not been castrated. The emotions reflect reactions to stress situations to which they themselves were not exposed (48).

If you click [SHOW SENSITIVE CONTENT], you will see the back end of a piglet with his tail freshly docked and testicles removed.

(SHOW SENSITIVE CONTENT)

(44) Veit, C., Marahrens, M., Schwarzlose, I., Krause, E. T., & Schrader, L. (2017). Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration in Deutschland: Überblick zum aktuellen Stand der Forschung. Berliner und Münchener Tierärztliche Wochenschrift, 131.

(45) Appleby, M. C., Olsson, A. S., & Galindo, F. (Eds.). (2018). Animal welfare. Cabi.

(46) Fraser, D. (2009). Assessing animal welfare: different philosophies, different scientific approaches. Zoo Biology: Published in affiliation with the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, 28(6), 507-518.

(47) Weary, D. M., & Fraser, D. (1995). Calling by domestic piglets: reliable signals of need?. Animal Behaviour, 50(4), 1047-1055.

(48) Yun, J., Ollila, A., Valros, A., Larenza-Menzies, P., Heinonen, M., Oliviero, C., & Peltoniemi, O. (2019). Behavioural alterations in piglets after surgical castration: Effects of analgesia and anaesthesia. Research in veterinary science, 125, 36-42.

What should be considered in animal welfare work?

It is advisable to continue observing the developments in local anesthesia. Research seems to go further in this direction even though studies repeatedly prove that this method does not eliminate pain. Despite this, local anesthesia remains a topic of discussion as an alternative, while the other methods are likely to be devalued (49). This disregards the available alternatives and seems to follow the voices from agriculture, for whome local anesthesia would be the most financially advantageous method (50), (51).

The extent of the influence of the agricultural lobby has recently become clear with the extension of the deadline for castration without anesthesia. Politics and economy have not managed to get involved in time with one or more available alternatives (52).

It is therefore important to continue to communicate the scientific consensus on local anesthesia and not to be included in the list of alternatives to castration with anesthesia.

If animal welfare work continues to focus on abandoning (surgical) castration, reference can be made to other countries. Boar fattening has been established in Great Britain and Ireland for many years. Due to pressure from animal welfare organizations, the method is also gaining in importance in the Netherlands and Belgium. Meanwhile, about 70 percent of the Dutch pigs are not castrated. Countries like Australia and New Zealand already have experience with immunocastration. And in Belgium, too, the number of agricultural holdings using this process is increasing (53).

(49) Hofmann, K. (2019). Schmerz-und Stressbestimmung bei der Injektion und Kastration von Saugferkeln unter Lokalanästhesie mit Procain und Lidocain mittels Kortisol und Chromogranin A sowie Wundheilung, Gewichtsentwicklung und Saugferkelverlusten (Doctoral dissertation, LMU Munich).

(50) The German Farmers` Association. (2018, 27.06.). “5 vor 12 für die deutsche Sauenhaltung!”. Erklärung des Präsidiums des Deutschen Bauernverbandes vom 27.06.2018 zur Lage der Ferkelerzeuger in Deutschland.

(51) Hungerkamp, M. (2020, 22.05). Ferkelkastration: Heidl fordert Anerkennung der lokalen Betäubung. Agrarheute.

(52) Verhaagh, M., & Deblitz, C. (2019). Wirtschaftlichkeit der Alternativen zur betäubungslosen Ferkelkastration–Aktualisierung und Erweiterung der betriebswirtschaftlichen Berechnungen (No. 1422-2019-1565). Thünen Institute of Farm Economics.

(53) Bonneau, M., & Weiler, U. (2019). Pros and cons of alternatives to piglet castration: Welfare, boar taint, and other meat quality traits. Animals, 9(11), 884.

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