Behavioural and brain gene expression profiling in pigs during tail biting outbreaks – evidence of a tail biting resistant phenotype

Abnormal tail biting behaviour is a major welfare problem for pigs receiving the behaviour, as well as an indication of decreased welfare in the pigs performing it. However, not all pigs in a pen perform or receive tail biting behaviour and it has recently been shown that these ‘neutral’ pigs not only differ in their behaviour, but also in their gene expression compared to performers and receivers of tail biting in the same pen. To investigate whether this difference was linked to the cause or a consequence of them not being involved in the outbreak of tail biting, behaviour and brain gene expression was compared with ‘control’ pigs housed in pens with no tail biting. It was shown that the pigs housed in control pens performed a wider variety of pig-directed abnormal behaviour (belly nosing 0.95±1.59, tail in mouth 0.31±0.60 and ‘other’ abnormal 1.53±4.26; mean±S.D) compared to the neutral pigs (belly nosing 0.30±0.62, tail in mouth 0.13±0.50 and ‘other’ abnormal 0.42±1.06). With Affymetrix gene expression arrays, 107 transcripts were identified as differently expressed (p<0.05) between these two categories of pigs. Several of these transcripts had already been shown to be differently expressed in the neutral pigs when they were compared to performers and receivers of tail biting in the same pen in an earlier study. Hence, the different expression of these genes cannot be a consequence of the neutral pigs not being involved in tail biting behaviour, but rather linked to the cause contributing to why they were not involved in tail biting interactions. These neutral pigs seem to have a genetic and behavioural profile that somehow contributes to them being resistant to performing or receiving pig-directed abnormal behaviour, such as tail biting, even when housed in an environment that elicits that behaviour in other pigs. The study is from the Department of Animal Environment and Health, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala, Sweden.

Brunberg E, Jensen P, Isaksson A, Keeling LJ. PLoS One 2013;8(6): e66513.