Potbellied Pigs: Are the Lardiest Pets a Health Hazard?

Barbie is a highly intelligent and affectionate child. She knows her colors, sleeps in her own bedroom and curls up at night with her head in her mother's lap.

But she eats like a pig.

She is one — a potbellied pig, that is. Barbie is one of the hundreds of thousands of such domesticated animals that live "the life of Riley." Or Wilbur, Babe and Porky.

In the wild, hogs carry a host of diseases and parasites, including cholera, tuberculosis, salmonella and anthrax, according to wildlife ecologists at the University of Florida.

But breeders maintain that, if properly immunized, domesticated pigs pose no threat to humans.


"They are a wonderful pet for people with the patience of Job," said Janie Finck of the North American Potbellied Pig Association. "They like to be part of the family. But you have to keep them occupied. They won't go in the corner and sleep all day like a dog or cat. And they can be destructive."

That is why many municipalities, like New York City, ban such pets. But animal control officers have turned a blind eye to one couple who raise a housebroken porker alongside their two children.

"There are a variety of animals that are prohibited in New York City for health and safety reasons, including pigs," New York's Department of Health said in a prepared statement. "In situations where families have animals that could potentially pose a risk, the health department works with them to relocate the animal to a suitable home outside the city."

But so far, health officials have not received any complaints on the live-in pig in New York, and they say health risks are "not much more than a cat or dog."

Like One of the Kids

Lisa and Joel Cummings of St. Albans, Queens, told the New York Post this week that their Vietnamese potbellied pig, Romeo, "runs around the house," and is "very calm and does well with the kids."

Their 200-pound oinker eats three pounds of pellets a day and is walked daily on a leash. The children love him.

Pigs — even the domesticated potbellied kind — are on a long list of pets that are prohibited from living in New York dwellings. That also includes ferrets, which are "known for their unpredictable behavior, and are prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans," according to the New York City Department of Health.

"We compile this list mainly because this is a dense urban environment," said Sarah Markt, a health department spokesman. "There are some exceptions. You can keep chickens, because they are not terribly disruptive."

Bees, on the other hand, would pose their own danger, she said. Think stingers.

Animal experts say living with any large animal can pose hazards to small children, and parents should exercise caution with a swaggering tub of lard — even a domesticated pig.

"Pigs can get big and that may very well be a concern," said Carina Blackmore, the public health veterinarian for the state of Florida. "Animals can transmit disease to people, but pigs are no more dangerous than any other kind of livestock."

Pigs can carry ringworm or bacteria that cause intestinal illnesses in humans. Families with young children should practice good hand washing, according to Blackmore.

Finck, who rallied her town of Bradenton, Fla., to change ordinances, allowing pet owners to keep pigs legally, agrees that pet pigs are not for everyone, and especially not for city dwellers.

She owns four potbellied pigs, two of them living indoors.

"They're not apartment animals," said Finck. "They are so intelligent that they do things like pull the wallpaper off the wall when they are bored."

"New York is not the ideal place," added Finck. "I am not saying it's not doable, but I wouldn't recommend it. They like to be stimulated, and you have to be really invested in them. You can't be at work 10 to 12 hours a day."

Potbellied pigs were popular during the 1980s, but then went out of fashion because of the destruction factor. It takes a special type of person to own one, Finck said.

Clooney Mourns Max

Actor George Clooney shared his Hollywood home with a 300-pound potbellied pig until Max the star went to hog heaven at the age of 18, after suffering from arthritis and partial blindness.

"He's been a big part of my life," Clooney — who even sometimes shared the same bed with his pet — told People magazine last year.

Finck said there has been a "resurgence" of interest in potbellied pigs, which can live for 15 to 20 years. She said that, despite the stereotypes of mud-wallowing hogs, most are clean, healthy creatures.

Rivaled in intelligence only by primates, whales and dolphins, pigs learn faster than dogs, and can even be trained to count.

Pet pigs are reasonably priced — at less than $500, no more than a purebred dog — although there is the bill for copious amounts of food. It is no myth, say breeders, that hogs need to watch their weight.

Pigs only shed their coats once a year, when they lose their bristles in the spring. Unlike cats and dogs, they don't get fleas, because the insects can't bite through their tough skin. Mites can be a problem, though.

"And they're quieter than a dog," said Finck. "They don't bark, they oink, and they don't go crazy at the door. They don't jump up on you or get out and run around the neighborhood. They are not aggressive, and will only bite if they are afraid. Their typical response is to run away. They hate confrontation."

But like other domesticated animals, pigs need all their inoculations and health checks. Finck's town also requires that the animals be spayed, and places limits on the numbers in a home. If they are off the property, they must be on a leash.

"Pigs can do just about anything you teach them to do," said Finck. "They are one of few animals that have reasoning ability, and apply a learned procedure."

Beau, a 150-pounder who died of cancer at 16, learned that he could pull the dish towel that hung on the refrigerator to open the door and get vegetables on the bottom shelf.

Helps Himself to Dinner

"He'd go help himself," Finck said.

Piggie performing acts can play basketball, deliver and open mail and even play instruments, according to Finck. In one show closer, she saw a pig hop into a suitcase and close it.

When Finck holds up colored flash cards and asks Barbie which is the blue one, she uses her nose to indicate. One of her friends taught her pig to count. When asked, "what's two plus two?" the hog would respond by pawing the ground four times.

As far as care is concerned, potbellied pigs need their hooves trimmed, and sometimes, their tusks need cutting back — not an easy task, said Finck, because "pigs don't like being constrained."

They can be affectionate. Two of Finck's pigs lay their heads on her lap while she watches "Oprah," and she rubs their bellies.

Still, some pet owners are more realistic about a pig's ability to love back.

"I don't think of them as house pets," said Heidi Hesselein, who, several years ago, received a 150-pounder as a gift from a professional colleague.

"Phoebe was the smartest pet we had, but she was completely focused on eating," said Hesselein, who had raised farm pigs as a child. "She wasn't like a dog that interacts and plays. We found her fascinating, but she was very bullheaded, and there was nothing warm and fuzzy about her."

Phoebe had free run of Pleasant Run Nursery, the Allentown, N.J., farm where Hesselein and her husband sell wholesale exotic plants. In the spring, the hog would ravage the Chinese chestnuts.

"She was a handful, and I can't imagine how I would take her on a leash and walk her where she didn't want to go," said Hesselein. "She was disgustingly fat, like a barrel on four legs, and when she got bored, she'd let out a shattering squeal."

Her Last Supper

Unfortunately, Phoebe met her demise one day on one of her food rampages. She broke into the greenhouse and ate rat poison.

But, as Hesselein remembers fondly, "She was a great hit with the customers."