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Prenatal stress leads to stress-prone piglets

29 October 2010

A BBSRC-funded study into the health and welfare of pigs has shown that stress during pregnancy results in offspring that are 'stress-programmed' for life.

These findings were presented to industry representatives, policymakers and researchers as part of a workshop on pig health, welfare and nutrition organised by the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) on 13 October.

© Scottish Agricultural College


Researchers at SAC studied the impact of pregnant sows' exposure to social stress, which may happen on pig farms when unfamiliar pigs are mixed in new social groups or when competition between sows occurs when they are fed together. They have found that prenatal stress results in offspring that are more fearful and react more strongly to stressful situations than piglets born to stress-free mothers.

The study, which is part of a joint research project between SAC and researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, also found evidence that the piglets' immune systems were affected, potentially making them more susceptible to disease.

The researchers believe that these problems are caused by stress hormones in the pregnant animal crossing the placenta and affecting brain development in the foetus, particularly in the second trimester. The study focussed on piglets from first time mothers, known as gilts, which are often more likely to experience stress during pregnancy.

SAC researcher, Dr Kenny Rutherford, said, "Our study found that changing certain conditions that pregnant pigs experience could lead to a win-win situation of improved welfare both for mothers and their offspring, as well as increased farm productivity and efficiency.

"Our findings could also be relevant to theories about the impact of stress on pregnant women because brain development in foetal pigs and humans is similar and at birth, human infant and piglets' brains are at an equivalent developmental stage."



BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £470M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.