Susan Armstrong Magidson, one of the Philadelphia area’s top pig mavens, can tell you one thing before she gets to all the reasons that she loves pet pigs.
There is “absolutely no truth” to the concept of “micro-pigs” or “teacup pigs,” Magidson says — those videos all over YouTube of teeny piglets basking in belly rubs or compilations of miniscule porcine pets capering around the house are the bane of responsible pet pig advocates everywhere.
“True happiness exists and it is a piglet eating ice cream at a mini picnic table under a mini umbrella,” roughly two-thirds of the Tumblrs ever conceived declare at some point.
For some people, true happiness may indeed be a pet pig, not to be confused with the considerably larger pigs you’d meet on your average farm (or, it must be said, alongside your waffles at brunch). But Magidson is in a good position to separate the true pig lovers from the people with a crush on a cutie on YouTube. She’s a past president of the North American Potbelly Pig Association, and the founder of the non-profit Pig Placement Network, which works to find homes for pigs that need them (check them out if you’re interested in a pet pig).
Many homes needed
And a lot of pigs need good homes these days, she says. At her boarding farm and foster-care center in Jamison, PA (just about an hour north of Philadelphia), Ross Mill Farm, she says she gets up to 400 calls per year from people who are no longer able or willing to house or care for their pet pigs, but is able to place only about 60 pigs annually in new homes.
She can’t house all the pigs who need homes. Her current capacity, both financially and space-wise, tops out at 150, which is really nudging more like 160, if you count a couple of free-range pigs nosing around the grounds, bordered by a good-sized creek and a steep hill. Some pigs are fosters who need new homes, some will ultimately be permanent residents, and some are long-term guests whose owners pay to board them.
Pigs. Wait, but why?
A lifelong dog lover, I wanted to understand more about why some people long to have a pig in the house instead. So I scheduled a visit to Ross Mill. To me, dogs seem so much more companionable, expressive, and adapted to our lifestyles (no wonder, after thousands of years of co-evolution and then, much more recently, specialized breeding to mold them into our ideal working and household companions, in their many forms). Pigs toddle stiffly around on four hooves, flare their snouts, and grunt. They wag their tails in quick low pendulum sweeps, like a nervous dog might, but I have no idea what it means when a pig wags its tail (though to be honest, the latest research into Canis familiaris is revealing we may not know as much as we think about dogs, either). Is the pig happy? Afraid? Is it swishing flies? Does it hope I have food in my pocket? I don’t know.
One thing pig lovers do agree on is that pigs are smart — very smart. Whether or not this is a characteristic of an animal you want to bring into your home (for an average lifespan of 16-18 years, Magidson says, though she did have one pig that made it to 23) is up to the individual pet parent. Some people love dogs for their unconditional companionship, and I think there’s a lot to be said for an adorable animal that believes the sun rises and sets on you, will greet every guest like a long-lost friend, and will do whatever tricks we dream up, from surfing to rolling over, just to please us.
But take Porkchop, one of the much-loved residents of Ross Mill. She’s a two-year-old pig with pink-painted fore-hooves whose owner, Mia Crivaro, visits her three times a week. Crivaro used to keep Porkchop at home, where she says the two enjoyed long snuggle sessions on her couch, but when she had to move to an area that was not zoned for pet pigs, she had to find a place for Porkchop to stay.
“She’s like a child to me,” Crivaro says of Porkchop, a medium-sized black pig. Porkchop’s shoulder may be just a little over a foot off the ground, but she’s a solid porker, and probably weighs as much as a large dog would. Crivaro may feel the love from Porkchop, but Porkchop isn’t having it from anyone else — in fact, Crivaro warns my friend and me not to try putting our hands in the pen for a pat, because we might get nipped.
Crivaro says Porkchop, unlike a lot of dogs, can master a new trick within an hour, and like a lot of dogs, she always wants to be around her owner.
Can Porkchop demonstrate a command, like “sit”, for visitors?
Crivaro tries, but Porkchop, next to a mountainous pile of mismatched blankets for optimum burrowing, backs up a little and gives us all a decidedly contemplative look, her hindquarters hovering slightly. What for? her look seems to say. She doesn’t see a treat in Crivaro’s hand, and she’s not about to perform just for the props.
“They’re all so different,” Crivaro says of the diverse personalities of pet pigs. Some love to have their bellies scratched, and “some run screaming out the door.”
The dreaded phone call
If anything makes Magidson want to run screaming out the door, it’s what she often hears from prospective pig parents who call the farm: “I want a teacup.”
On the afternoon I visited, Magidson accepted a “surrender”: a smallish young pig from a man who had ordered his pet online, but received a male animal when he’d ordered a female one, which quickly got heavier than the promised 19-30 pounds. Since it was an attractive, young little animal with up-to-date veterinary care and a microchip, she knew she’d be able to find a home for the pig. (She also says that there’s very little difference in size and temperament between male and female pet pigs, and the pig’s gender isn’t an important factor in its placement with a new family.)
Much as she loves pigs, Magidson is quick to point out many of the modern problems and misconceptions of pig ownership, many of which parallel those of the canine world. Animals bred to achieve a certain size or color, and readily available through many unscrupulous websites to anyone addicted to cute piggy videos online, often surprise their owners with unexpected behaviors or just their sheer size: anyone getting a “potbellied” pig — a “true mutt” of an animal, according to Magidson, with no “pure bred” pigs to speak of — should be ready to house and care for an animal that will probably weigh as much as a very large dog when it’s done being the piglet we all see in videos.
Pigs, all grown up
These pet pigs come in all colors, sizes, and shapes, Magidson says, and the tenants of her farm bear this out. There are black pigs, light pigs, reddish pigs, pink pigs, and spotted pigs. Many have luxuriant wiry coats and zany bristling eyelashes. Some are so large their heads reach my thigh; some have small tusks curving out from under their snouts, dripping with foamy saliva as they squeal and grunt for lunch (at least that’s what I assume they want). Another one submits calmly to a gentle stroking. In the next pen, two hairy black-and-white specimens, lying side by side, appear to be having a conversation, contentedly grunting in perfect alternation.
The biggest of them all, Popo, lies in an apparent coma on a heap of blankets just inside the door of the Ross Mill “Lodge.” It’s neary impossible to see his eyes through the folds of fat. Magidson says he was poorly cared for before his surrender at the farm: so obese he could barely walk. Frankly, I can’t imagine how he heaves himself to his feet now, but she says he’s lost a lot of weight.
One of the other big ones is asleep with nothing but its big, mottled ass poking out of the flap that covers the door between its inside and outside enclosure.
Frankly, I’m afraid to touch almost all of them. (But I’m also kind of afraid to touch parakeets.)
“Smaller does not mean sounder,” Magidson insists of the craze for tiny pigs. In fact, some truly nefarious breeders and owners actually underfeed their pigs, keeping them perpetually hungry and stunting their skeletal growth, to keep them as little as possible.
Pet pigs grow rapidly in their first year of life, quickly leaving the tiny piglet stage behind, Magidson says. They’ll continue to grow in their second year, but not as much, and will top out at their adult size within three to four years.
Pigs aren’t like cats and dogs
Magidson, who offers consultations on the farm and over the phone to prospective owners, does a pretty good job of pinpointing how pet pigs are different from dogs or cats.
“My dog is important to me because I like his companionship,” she says. “I love my cat because it sits on my lap.” But the pig — “the pig appeals to my spiritual side.”
Why? There’s just something “zen-like” about them, she explains. They don’t like high-activity situations. They live in what seems like a quiet, meditative state and apparently enjoy new-age music. As she puts it, if you were to compare them to different types of humans, pigs would prefer the symphony to the sports complex.
Pigs aren’t protective the way many dogs are, she goes on. While they can bond strongly with their owners and be a great pet to lie around with, they won’t fulfill the same needs that dogs do for their humans.
One major difference is that dogs, by nature, are descended from hunters. Pigs, relatively docile creatures of the herd who like nothing better than to nose around grazing the grass a bit, are prey animals. That means they’re naturally warier animals than dogs are, and are not likely to be enthusiastic about new people in the home. Unlike many dogs, a pig, because of its nature as a prey animal, may not greet a visitor happily, but be afraid of the interloper.
And unlike with dogs and cats, quality veterinary care for pet pigs is harder to find than most people realize. Many vets will treat pigs, but don’t really possess the specialized knowledge that keeps them in optimal heath. For example, most pet pigs are prone to arthritis at a fairly early age, Magidson says, so it’s important for owners to make sure their pigs aren’t getting too much activity: jumping on and off beds or couches, or running up and down the stairs, like a dog might. It’s just not what pigs are built to do.
To illustrate the difficulty of finding adequate veterinary care for a pig, Magidson says that some of her clients come from as far away as Maine multiple times a year just to have their pigs’ hooves trimmed. People who want a pig (or two, since they’re actually happiest in groups of their own kind) should be sure they have qualified veterinary care for it at a reasonable distance from home. And many townships actually have zoning codes that prevent the ownership of pigs at home, so check your local laws before buying.
But the pet pig has many winning qualities that its devotees will always love. Perhaps because of their heritage as prey animals, they love to sleep in whatever household burrows they can contrive, and enjoy nestling under blankets.
And unlike many dogs and cats, who love to roam, “they always come home,” Magidson says of her charges. A pet pig is not going to run away on you.
By the end of our visit, my friend and I had both learned a lot about pet pigs, but both ultimately were strengthened in the feelings we brought to the farm. His dream is a potbellied pig of his very own. I can see the pig’s appeal to the right kind of owner, but my most delightful interaction on the farm was with a tiny Yorkshire Terrier, which wriggled its way up to me and was ecstatic when I lifted him into my lap.
The free-roaming pigs, by contrast, regarded us coolly with a clear mix of curiosity and caution, walking up to within a few feet, snouts wiggling, tails flapping, before turning and trotting away as if they’d seen enough. They’re intelligent, but discriminating, at least about humans, in a way that most dogs aren’t. Maybe that’s why dedicated pig owners appreciate their pets so much. As long as everyone knows there’s no such thing as a permanently teeny pig.