ELBERT'S DIET & RECOVERY PLAN
by Lydia Weaver
When Elbert arrived here in August of 2008,
we guesstimated he weighed at least 260lbs, or more than twice what he should
have weighed. His feet were so overgrown he could not get them out in
front of himself in order to stand up and even try to walk. Because of
those neglected hooves and his great weight, he was forced to crawl on his
knees in order to move at all. My strongest memory of that day was
fighting tears while I told the man dumping this pig that I was not sure I
could save him. I was absolutely terrified of the whole situation.
I'd dieted pigs before, several times, but had never seen obesity this
extreme. I felt desperately inadequate to even begin this journey.
The whole idea seemed impossible, because any way I looked at it, no matter the
angle, all I could see were things that could go drastically wrong, and all of
them I imagined would be life threatening, if not absolutely fatal, to
Elbert had reached this extreme weight due to
his previous owner feeding him a diet of dry dog food kibble. He didn't
just feed him dog food in separate meals, but instead left dog kibble lying in
front of Elbert at all times. Any of us that have pigs know that there is
little in this world they'd rather do than eat. That fact, combined with Elbert
being kept confined in a house at all times with no exercise to speak of was a
recipe for disaster. He was kept indoors 24/7 on a concrete floor and
with a litter box. When I inquired about him going outside, I was told he
couldn't physically get outside and had not been out of the house in several
Right from the start, beginning on the day of Elbert's arrival here, we changed everything about his situation. First, we trimmed his severely overgrown hooves. We waited until he was lying flat on his side, this particular time being on his right side, then my husband took a firm hold on the two right legs that were touching the ground and gently but firmly pulled up enough on them that Elbert could not get them under himself and get up. That allowed me to work on his feet, and I worked quickly with a pair of GE brand horse hoof nippers to get them all trimmed before Elbert could become too terribly stressed about being held down.
Next was changing the most important thing, which was Elbert's
diet. This meant no more dog food at all. Pigs are not dogs, and
there is nothing in dog food that is truly beneficial to pigs. Dog food
has far too much protein and fat, as well as far too little fiber to be a diet
of choice for pigs. Pigs are designed to eat vegetation, not processed
corn and chicken by products frequently found in dog food. To replace the
kibble that had been the mainstay of Elbert's diet for years, I fell back on
the tried and true product that has done so well for me in the past, Mazuri
Elder Pot Bellied Pig Feed. Mazuri is a small company, a subsidiary of
Purina, and they make a line of feeds designed specifically to meet the needs
of pet pigs. If you have a Purina feeds dealer in your area, they can most
likely order Mazuri products for you.
The general rule of thumb for adult pigs is that they should be fed one pound of food per one hundred pounds they should weigh. That would mean that a pig that should weigh a hundred pounds would be fed approximately one pound of pig feed per day. Ideally, that would be divided in two to three feedings throughout the day, so that he isn't overly hungry between meals. Bear in mind that this amount can vary depending on age, activity level and natural metabolism of the pig involved. Pigs are like people, and some can stay leaner or heavier than others on the same amount of feed, so naturally you must monitor the status of the pig in question and adjust his or her feed accordingly.
I wasn't sure exactly how much Elbert should weigh, because
his shape was so distorted by obesity, but I knew that we had to get
weight off him as quickly, yet safely, as possible. I made an assumption
that he might need to be approximately 130 lbs, and started to feed him
accordingly. I began with 3/4 cup of Mazuri Elder pellets twice a
day, and then added fresh vegetables from my garden to both help him feel full
longer, and to get extra vitamins/minerals and fiber into his diet. I
chopped zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce,
etc., basically any non starchy type vegetable I had on hand, at a rate of
approximately 2 cups twice a day. I also added small amounts of
watermelon rind, grapes, apples and just an occasional tidbit of banana,
especially if I needed to get medication into him. If I had fed
strictly pellets, of course I would have fed him more of them, but since I
added the veggies, I cut back some on the amount of pig feed to balance the
daily caloric intake.
Again, being like people, pig dieting doesn't work long term without adding exercise. Elbert was severely challenged in this area, due to the extensive joint damage he'd suffered from his situation. His knees are permanently bent and twisted outward, which handicapped his exercise efforts, and because he had been unable to exercise for so long, his muscles were atrophied to the extent that even when he tried to stand up, his muscles would shake and tremor until he could no longer hold the position. Then he'd drop back to his knees or lie back down to rest. He was so uncomfortable that he didn't want to try to get up more than once or twice at best, so I had to find something to encourage Elbert to keep trying. Motivation for Elbert came in the form of a grape. Before his meals, I would hold a grape in front of him, like the proverbial carrot on a string, and encourage him to walk several steps before rewarding him with his treat. In the beginning he could make about 4 steps before collapsing to his knees again, but over the course of about a week, he was able to go six steps. I repeated this at every meal and as often as I could, I would also repeat it at other times during the day. Before long, I realized that I could see real progress every few days. I could get eight steps, then he could make the journey all the way across his stall to get to his feed. Then he could follow me as I walked backward around the stall pulling his feed bowl with me. It wasn't easy. Every step required a Herculean effort on Elbert's part, but day by day he was getting stronger, and was able to both stay up longer and walk farther. Elbert was beginning to heal, and I was beginning to hope. Maybe we could be successful after all.
One other important thing we had to address with Elbert was his pain level due to his arthritic knees. From the beginning, I started him on a good joint supplement that included glucosamine, chondroitin, MSM and hyaluronic acid. I found it easiest and least expensive to use a horse supplement with these ingredients. It comes in a pelleted form, which Elbert just eats right along with his pig feed. For his pain, I talked to my veterinarian and we decided to go with meloxicam given once daily. We chose this medication for two reasons. First, it is an NSAID, and those can be rough on the tummy for some humans as well as animals, but meloxicam is known to be not as severe as some other NSAIDs. Secondly, and fortunately for me, because this drug is a generic form of the human medication, Mobic, it is available at several pharmacies like Wal-Mart, Kroger, Ingles, etc., on their generic $4 programs. It comes in a small, oblong tablet that is easily pushed into the stem end of a grape, and Elbert eats it as if there is nothing at all added to the grape. In over a year of use, Elbert has never shown the slightest degree of gastric upset from the medication. Without addressing this vital aspect of Elbert's healing, I don't think he would have made progress nearly as quickly as he did. It's hard to be motivated to exercise when you are in constant, unrelenting pain, and keeping that problem well in hand has undoubtedly contributed to his success.
By the end of his first year here, Elbert showed
miraculous progress. Looking at him now, you'd never know he's the
same pig he was in 2008. The change is so drastic that it's
easy to forget that progress was slow, painful, and especially for the
first months, difficult to see. It is important to believe
that even when change seems elusive, it is happening.
When you think you'll never see that pig healthy again, that's the time you
must fiercely stick to the program. My only regret over that first
year is that I failed to actually measure Elbert to document exactly how
much he lost. If I had it to do over, I would have measured him around
the jowls and girth at least once a month. Regardless of the exact
number, it is clear that Elbert has lost a whole pig in size, if not
Once he got his strength and stamina built up enough to go outdoors, he became an unstoppable force. Elbert is a pig on the move, despite his crab-like gait, constantly traveling around the yard grazing, seeking the best spot to catch some rays and of course, making hopeful stops at the back door asking for a treat. Perhaps he's making up for those early years of his life that he lost while being confined and nearly fed to death, but Elbert is everywhere, greeting every visitor with sweet grunts, and demonstrating his best belly flop to ask for a tummy rub from anyone that will show him the slightest bit of attention. There is no way for any of us to know what sort of lifespan Elbert will have. Because of the severity of his joint damage, he may well not get to enjoy a normal pig's full lifespan, but we are determined to make whatever time he has as enjoyable as possible.
My most fervent wish is that people will see Elbert's story and finally begin to understand the importance of feeding pet pigs properly. We are understanding more and more as time passes how vital a role nutrition plays in our pigs' longevity. The encouraging thing about Elbert is that if you have a pig that is overweight, or even morbidly obese, he proves that there is hope for a positive change. It is in our power to help these pigs, and they deserve no less than our best effort. I can testify that Elbert has been worth every minute of time, every cup of vegetables chopped, every step of physical therapy we took together, and every grape he was rewarded with. I know that your pig will be the same for you.
Watch Elbert's video created by Lydia's teenage daughter Brenna: