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Piglets, Pituitaries and Chilly Temperatures

By Linda Cooke
May 13, 1997

Some like it hot--especially newborn pigs, whose health, well-being and survival are threatened when temperatures dip. Scientists with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service say new information about piglets’ ability to cope with cold stress can help producers get little porkers off to a good start.

Piglet survival and growth are the keystones of pork profitability. Currently, 12 to 15 percent of piglets die before they are weaned. It’s been calculated that saving one piglet per litter born in the United States is worth $350 million annually.

ARS scientists were the first to study the effects of temperature on baby pigs’ pituitary gland. Located underneath the pig’s brain, this gland secretes hormones that control important biological responses to stress and can indicate whether the piglet is experiencing stress.

The pituitary-temperature studies were “piggybacked” with results from other ARS swine experiments on temperature and exposure to disease. One discovery: Unlike older animals, a newborn pig’s immune system does not respond to a disease challenge by producing a fever. Instead, the newborn pig’s body temperature can drop to subnormal levels. This new information may have a significant impact on piglet survival since loss of body heat is known to be an important factor contributing to piglet deaths.

The ARS scientists have teamed up with University of Missouri researchers to construct a mini-metabolic chamber to further study and determine causes of piglet deaths.

Scientific contact: Robert L. Matteri, ARS Animal Physiology Research, University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo., phone (573) 882-1047,