By Bob Freund | Photography by Dawn Sanborn
It’s summertime and the living really is easy for Harley.
She can root around the yard or drowse in the sun. If the day turns into a scorcher, she might slip through the doggie door and claim a cool spot on the couch inside the house.
Twice a day, she can count on a meal of pig chow and vegetables. That makes her happy, to say the least. She “turns and spins around every time you feed her,” says owner Dawn Sanborn.
Harley is a Vietnamese potbellied pig, and she is more than mere livestock to Dawn, husband Bob Sanborn and their daughter Madison. She is a family pet, just like the three dogs, 10 cats and cockatiel bird at their 6-acre hobby farm in rural Rochester.
NOT YOUR STANDARD HOG
Harley’s heritage likely traces back to one of two groups of potbellies that were imported into the country only about three decades ago. A Canadian zoo director named Keith Connell brought the first group of 16 unrelated animals into North America from Europe in 1985. Another group was imported from Europe to Texas in 1989.
The new arrivals were different from the standard farm hogs that are raised for pork production. They were “miniature” pigs, typically much less than half the size of production swine. The potbellies captured interest as exotic pets to the point that, even in urban areas, people were buying the unusual-looking pigs as companion animals.
The Vietnamese potbellied pigs also stimulated interest in other types of miniature pigs as pets. Today, there are a number of varieties, and they have much the same appeal as potbellies.
When Dawn Sanborn calls her porcine companion, she often shortens “Harley” to “Pig.” Apparently that’s fine for the 8-year-old potbelly. Harley can understand some commands and comes when called.
It also helps that Dawn often recognizes what the pet is saying. “I talk very fluent pig,” she says.
In fact, pigs can be surprisingly smart. Harley is trained like other pets to use a litter box, and she’ll do a trick or two. In the past, Harley also figured out how to open doors, Dawn says.
Food is a main lure for Harley and other pet pigs. They live to eat. “If you have a treat, she’ll go for it,” Dawn says.
Tamara Graham of rural Pine Island, who formerly owned a different type of micro pig named Pixie, also found food was the way to keep her pet’s attention. “If it knew you had treats, it would follow you around, just like a dog would,” she says.
GETTING ALONG IN THE YARD
Their pigs also proved to be companions for other family pets. Tamara says her four dogs “would love to play with the pig.” The little porker, who only weighed about 25 pounds, got into the game. “The pig would kind of head-butt the dogs,” Tamara says.
At the Sanborn farm, Harley developed a friendship with a pale calico cat named Tiki. Dawn gives that bond credit for Harley’s first encounters with the world outside her house’s back door. The cat “gave her confidence to get outside,” Dawn says.
Now Harley uses a doggie door to enter and leave on her own. She has the run of the main house and sleeps on a couch at night.
Harley has plenty of other familiar companions at the Sanborn farm. The three dogs “are indifferent to her,” Dawn says. Besides the dogs and cats, the hobby farm houses four horses, a donkey, eight goats and five chickens.
A “PIG” COMMITMENT
But, like any pet, keeping a tamed pig also involves a commitment for the owners. Harley may qualify as a “miniature” Vietnamese potbellied pig, but she is not a pint-sized animal.
“Miniature” is in comparison to full-grown hogs, which can grow into many hundreds of pounds. Now 8 years old, Harley, who was purchased as a piglet by Madison, is a young adult weighing between 75 and 100 pounds, Dawn says. She could live to 20 or 25 years old.
Owners have to be mindful of overfeeding potbellied pigs. “Pigs will grow in direct proportion to the amount you feed them,” Dawn explains.
Medically, they do not need many vaccinations or medical checks. When they need medical attention, small-animal veterinarians typically can care for miniature pigs.
However, owners must trim their hooves and should clean their pigs’ ears routinely. Heat also can be a seasonal concern. During the hottest days of summer, an owner should keep the pig in a cool or shaded area, because pigs have few, if any, sweat glands for natural cooling.
In addition, the skin can be susceptible to sunburn. One pet pig owner from another Pine Island area farm says she sometimes spreads sunscreen lotion by hand to protect her animals’ hides.
Owners of unspayed female potbellies also have to cope with instincts such as nesting, when their pet collects articles from their territory and places them into a pile for later use. Dawn says she once discovered that Harley had found and dragged her laptop computer to a nesting pile.
While some pet pigs might thrive in an urban setting, many cities do not welcome them. For example, the City of Rochester classifies potbellied pigs among wild animals that cannot be kept in city limits. Of course, they can be raised and kept as pets at least in agricultural districts of Olmsted and other counties.
A JOY WITH A CHORE
Pigs often are social animals by nature and crave a lot of contact from their owners. Tamara, a real estate agent, gave her pet to another pig lover after owning it for about four months. “It needed more attention than I could give it,” she says. But the little pig was “entertaining,” she says.
Dawn, a professional photographer, finds Harley both a challenge and a companion. “It’s kind of like (having) a dog that doesn’t behave,” she summarizes. Nonetheless, “I like her.”
Bob Freund is a Rochester-based writer.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT POTBELLIED PIGS
- They are very smart animals and can be trained much like dogs.
- Potbellied pigs generally are black, but can have other colors of skin. Black helps protect skin from sun damage.
- Potbellies have poor eyesight, but excellent hearing and sense of smell.
- In the wild, they move in herds, mainly for protection. As a pet, one can enjoy life with humans by itself.
- Potbellied pigs are clean creatures. But they also like to roll on soil or grass and in mud or water during hot conditions.
- They do not like to be picked up or carried and they tell handlers immediately with a high-pitched squeal. “If you want to break your eardrums, try to pick up a pig,” says Dawn Sanborn of rural Rochester, who owns a Vietnamese potbellied pig.
Adapted from “10 Fast Facts for the Potbellied Pig” published by petMD.com.