Escherichia coli is a gram-negative pathogenic bacterial disease found in food, intestines, and the environment. Although some E. coli strains are harmless, others can lead to severe disease.

These issues can have a detrimental impact on farms raising pigs and result in economic losses. It can decrease the weight of pigs, increase treatment costs, and cause lost income due to pig mortality.

Strains of E. coli are classified by their virulence factors, serogroups, serotypes, phenotypes, and genotypes. E. coli isolates can tell you what strain you’re dealing with.

Some strains of E. coli change yearly. This means some treatment methods may not be effective every year.

This guide explains how E. coli impacts pigs, strategies to prevent it from occurring, and treatments to use to treat the illness. Let’s take a look at everything you need to know.

prevent e coli in pigs

How does E. coli affect pigs?

The pathogenesis (disease development) of colibacillosis occurs when E. coli attaches to the mucosal intestinal wall. This process happens when threadlike proteins called fimbriae adhesins attach to the epithelial cells in the intestines. Once the bacteria use fimbrial adhesins to attach, it can start spreading and make the pigs sick.

Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli affects pigs in three main phases:

  • Neonatal diarrhea
  • Piglet diarrhea
  • Post-weaningscours

In each of these situations, E. coli uses specific receptors to attach to the mucosa layer of the intestines using adhesins. E. coli attaches to internal enterocytes in the intestine’s mucosa layer. These cells help pigs with digestion.

A disruption here causes pigs to have trouble with water intake and vitamin and mineral absorption, causing digestion problems and diarrhea. The disease causes heat-labile toxins (LT, STA, and STB), heat-stable enterotoxins (EAST1), or Shiga toxins (Stx2e) to be released in the intestine.

Neonatal diarrhea occurs within the first four days of farrowing. It occurs due to exposure to bacteria in the environment. Once a piglet becomes infected, it can suffer from extreme diarrhea and dehydration — leading to death if not treated properly.

Piglet diarrhea occurs between seven and 28 days after birth. You’ll find diarrhea becomes hairy and turns gray or white. E. coli at this stage can lead to other enteric diseases, like gastroenteritis and edema disease, making your pigs weak and susceptible to death within a few days.

Post-weaning scours occur when a pig becomes infected by an enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC) strain. It usually occurs because of a contaminated environment. Symptoms at this stage are less severe and result in fewer deaths.

E. coli symptoms in pigs

Some clinical signs of E. coli vary based on which phase a pig is in, so you may not see some in every situation. These are the characterizations of E. coli to watch for:

  • Signs of dehydration
  • Increased secretion with frequent diarrhea
  • Lack of interest in eating as much feed
  • Signs of depression, lethargy, and disorientation
  • Redness on the stomach
  • Lesions on the small intestine

Cost-effective strategies to prevent E. coli in pigs

Managing Escherichia coli infections in pigs is critical to minimize costs and improve production. Use the strategies below to minimize the spread of different Escherichia coli strains and improve animal health.

Use probiotics

E. coli impacts the gastrointestinal health of the animals it infects, so excellent gut health is essential to preventing the disease from spreading. You can do a lot with great quality feed, good hygiene, and vaccination, but that isn’t the only option.

Probiotics are live organisms that aid in gut health. Including probiotics in your feed can help your pigs improve their intestinal health and their immune systems to fight off E. coli and other potential diseases caused by pathogens like Salmonella.

Monitor feed and water quality closely

One of the keys to a healthy pig is to wean piglet litters off by eating around the mother sow and suckling. This is important because the feed and water may become exposed to manure or feces if it isn’t in hygienic conditions.

This transition should be a gradual process. Suddenly changing the feeding and drinking situation can create a stressful environment for your pigs. Gradually introduce them to different environments until they’re comfortable at regular feeding stations.

Once you get your pigs eating from a feeding station, focus on keeping your feed and water quality good with frequent testing.

Maintain excellent stall hygiene

One of the main ways E. coli spreads is through unsanitary conditions. The disease travels on dirty clothing, equipment, old bedding material, and animals.

Unsanitary conditions allow E. coli to reach the other pigs in your herd. Exposure to other infected pigs and fecal matter infects other animals and results in the spread of the disease.

Here are a few ways to keep your pigs’ environment clean:

  • Schedule daily cleaning and disinfecting routines.
  • Remove old bedding and burn it to kill disease.
  • Require workers to sanitize before entering stalls.
  • Dry areas after cleaning to avoid moisture.
  • Clean paths used to transport pigs.

Sanitation is also important for gilts and sows. The disease can pass from mother to piglet as newborns get colostrum from the mother. Reducing the chance of mother pigs having E. coli can improve the health of piglets.

Control the temperature and dampness

The environmental conditions can impact how well E. coli spreads. The wetter and warmer the environment, the easier it is for it to grow.

Pigs also don’t gain complete thermal control over their bodies until they’re around 10 weeks old. An uncomfortable temperature can make your pigs stressed and more likely to contract any disease.

Use temperature control systems to control the temperature and humidity of your pigs’ environment. These controls can help keep your environment dry, reducing the chance of disease growing and spreading through your piglets.

Closely monitor the health of each pig

It’s still possible for porcine animals to contract E. coli in the best conditions. The key is to respond before it spreads to the rest of the herd. If you aren’t paying attention, the disease can spread quickly through feces and other means before you know what happened.

It takes a team effort to monitor the herd and look for problems. Have your team familiarize themselves with the signs of E. coli and report any trouble. If you see any signs of the disease, isolate the pig as soon as possible to avoid spread.

If you see more than one pig showing symptoms, isolate that section of your operation and treat your entire herd immediately.

How do you treat E. coli in pigs?

Although there’s a lot you can do to prevent the spread of E. coli, there might be times when it spreads to your pigs and requires intervention. After you confirm the disease with a PCR test, you can use a few veterinary medicine treatments.

Antimicrobials are a common treatment method for E. coli infections because they create an inhospitable environment for other bacteria antigens to spread. Antimicrobials have become popular as antibiotic treatment in swine is banned in many countries.

In countries where antibiotics aren’t banned, they offer a reliable way to deal with the disease. Along with antimicrobial treatments to deal with the disease, you’ll need to address the other symptoms of E. coli. Keep your pigs well-hydrated with water and electrolyte solutions to avoid dehydration.

Other solutions — such as zinc oxide, plasma proteins, organic acids, and probiotics — are available to help your pigs recover and to prevent infection. Identify the appropriate measures to help your pigs be healthy starting at a young age.

It’s important to remember to treat all your infected pigs at the same time. Otherwise, you risk E. coli spreading again and causing more disruptions to your operation.

How common is E. coli in pigs?

E. coli is one of the most common diseases for pigs. It’s common in countries that raise large herds, where there’s more chance of the disease spreading.

It’s also a global issue — not a disease confined to a specific demographic. While it’s not as common as in other forms of animal production, it’s enough to cause significant disruptions to businesses raising swine.

You can reduce how often E. coli occurs by following the tips above. But if you don’t work to create hygienic and stress-free conditions for your pigs, you’ll increase the prevalence of pathogenic E. coli in your herd.

Discover how eMax Feed Technologies can keep your pigs healthy

Giving your pigs what they need to thrive is one of the best ways to keep them healthy and avoid dealing with incidences of Enteropathogenic E. coli — and much of that is giving them the nutrition to stay in great shape and fight disease.

Engrain can help with our eMax Feed Technologies. Engrain uses probiotics to help keep your pigs healthier — and avoid diseases like E. coli and Salmonella — all while lowering your overall feed cost. Engrain will work with you to understand your unique situation, create a plan, and deliver great products to help your farm thrive.

Reach out today to get more information about how we can help.