While pigs are traditionally perceived as dirty, lazy and dim-witted, it has lately become accepted by many people that they are the exact opposite – clean (except for the occasional mud bath), intelligent and sociable. Steven Watermeyer of Melkbosstrand on the West Coast is successfully breeding teacup pigs in South Africa for the expanding ‘pigs as pets’ market.
Pigs as pets
While it has been recognised that pigs can make loveable household pets, their bulky frames put them at a disadvantage because they conform to the stereotype of being big and fat. In some breeds, adults can grow to weigh over half a ton.
Other breeds, such as the Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, remain relatively small, even into adulthood, and it is thanks to these ‘miniature’ breeds that the pig has made its debut on the pet scene.
The Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, although far smaller than pigs bred for ham and bacon, can still grow to a fair size, making them difficult to keep around the house. Nonetheless, they became relatively popular and the public’s enthusiasm sparked the idea of breeding them even smaller and more suited to the home environment.
Origins of the ‘teacup’ pig
Chris Murray of Devon, England, started experimenting with breeding miniature pigs in 1998. It apparently took him nine years, four different breeds and 24 generations to develop what has become known as the ‘teacup’ pig.
Steven is now following in his footsteps, breeding homegrown micro pigs to supply the local demand for pet porkies.
Steven spent four years working as an apprentice on a grain and dairy farm near Oxford in the UK, where he was eventually put in charge of the selection and breeding of dairy cows.
Steven Watermeyer leases a farm at Melkbosstrand on the West Coast.
After returning to South Africa in 2006, he signed a long-term lease on a 49ha farm near Melkbosstrand on the West Coast, and settled down.
From the outset, he ran a diversified small farming enterprise, which included fattening cattle in winter when feed was available on the veld, some vegetable farming and an on-site function venue.
Steven also obtained a pair of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to keep as pets, later adding another two. He then started breeding these pigs, using the selection skills learned during his UK apprenticeship, to breed the animals even smaller.
Not officially recognised breed
“There’s no such breed as a teacup pig,” Steven says. “The name is only used to describe pigs bred to be very small, the result of years of cross and selective breeding.
“I’ve been breeding pot-bellied pigs since 2006 and have, by careful selection, reduced the size when fully grown to that of a Jack Russell Terrier.”
Since teacup pigs are not a formal breed, it is impossible to guarantee that the offspring will be as small as their parents. The stock used to breed these tiny pigs can vary significantly in size, but breeders select only the smallest to breed even smaller pigs.
“However, with a good breeding programme and a large gene pool, it’s possible to consistently produce very small pigs,” explains Steven. “But some unscrupulous breeders market standard pot-bellied pigs as teacup pigs.”
Although pigs reach sexual maturity at an early age, they can take up to three years to reach full adult size.
“You can buy a pig at three or even six months without having any idea how big it will eventually be,” says Steven.
“Because of this, many people have ended up with pet pigs that have grown too large to handle.”
He is confident, however, that his programme and careful selection has resulted in pigs that will never grow to such unexpected proportions.
Breeding teacup pigs and selection
Steven’s original breeding stock was a pair of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, a breed known for its particularly short legs and portly build.
His selection criteria include choosing the smallest in the litter with short legs, a short straight back, a stocky build and a short snout. The most important of these is the length of the legs.
“For breeding purposes, the sow must be slightly larger than the boar because sows that are too small experience difficult gestation and birth,” he explains.
Gestation lasts for about 115 days. Pot-bellied pigs, like commercial breeds, usually have litters of between eight and 12, but pigs that have been bred to be really small have litters of between two and four piglets.
After birth, the piglets stay with the sow for six to eight weeks because they must be kept dry and warm.
Steven runs more than 100 pigs on the farm, and has built up an impressive breeding stock of 10 sows and three boars that qualify as teacup pigs.
These are fourth-, fifth- or even sixth-generation pigs in a breeding programme. Steven also has many second- or third-generation animals from other programmes that are not yet so small.
“I want to build up a large gene pool because the genetic variety in South Africa is very limited,” he says.
“I have respect and love for the animals I work with and steer clear of inbreeding. I would rather follow a lengthier breeding process than risk mating animals that vary too much in size, and only start breeding with sows when they are 18 months or older.”
The smallest pig Steven has bred to date was 25cm high when fully grown. He is sceptical about breeding pigs smaller than this as such sows would not develop a fully functional birth canal.
“Instead, I’m expanding the gene pool and my breeding stock of teacup pigs,” he says.
Educating pet owners
Steven’s affinity for these endearing little porkers is evident.
“Not everyone I meet is convinced that pigs are good pets,” he says.
“But they have a wonderful temperament and each one has its own personality. When growing up, they go through a stage where they try to establish dominance over their owners. So one has to be stern but gentle to teach a piglet what type of behaviour is acceptable.”
A teacup pig is intelligent and lively, and requires regular exercise, fresh air and sunshine. Steven recommends that its owner provides it with a wide variety of toys and a grassy area to graze.
Because it takes time, effort and expertise to breed, the pigs come with a hefty price tag of around R3 000.
Steven only selects owners who are willing and able to look after a pet pig. Regardless of how small the pig is, Steven recommends some outdoor space, even if it is just a small garden. He also warns against overfeeding.
“Pigs will consume everything you put in front of them, and then ask for more. When someone buys a pet pig, I give guidelines on feeding – a measured amount of pellets in the morning, and fresh fruit and vegetables in the afternoon and evening. If they’re constantly overfed, they’ll grow larger than anticipated. So it’s important to keep a close eye on how much it eats.”
Steven receives between five and 10 enquiries a week from prospective buyers. He always recommends that people visit the farm to learn more about the pigs before committing to buying them. He also tries to stay in contact with the new owner to make sure the pig doesn’t outgrow its welcome.
This article was origianally published in the 07 June 2013 issue of Farmers Weekly.