Of Pig Brains and Tea Cups


Half a Pig Head – Pig Skull Cross Section

I read people making grandiose claims about how pigs are so intelligent. Well, pigs are pretty good at being pigs but they lose out big time compared to dogs in the intelligence arms race. At least compared with our dogs. Perhaps we just have dumb pigs and intelligent dogs. But I don’t think so. Thus, I present this little bit of evidence which consists of half a pig brain. The purpose of that picture is to put to rest the myth that pigs are highly intelligent beings. They aren’t.
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The photo above is half of Anna‘s head, post butchering. The area in blue on the right is her brain. Compare the size of her brain with the size of her head. Realize that Anna weighed over a quarter ton and had a brain the size of a chicken egg. There really isn’t much for brains there. Not only that but if you examine the brain you find that most of it is devoted to smell and other primitive functions. There is very little in the way of higher centers of thinking and reasoning.

Pigs look like they have big heads like ET but that gives a false impression of intelligence. What is really in there? The fact is they are muscle heads. Or bone heads. Pick your phrase. Their heads are evolved to act as shovels and bulldozers. A pig head consists of a lot of bone and muscle, a lot of jaws and teeth and a lot of sinuses in their big pig noses. But there isn’t much brain in there. But they don’t need much for brains – they don’t do cooperative behavior like dogs and humans.

On the other hand, dog brains make up not just a larger percentage of the dog’s head and body weight but are actually physically larger than pig brains. That’s with the pig even having the advantage of being so much larger. If a dog was as large as a pig it would have a huge brain. A pig as small as a dog has a brain about the size of a little pullet egg – Tiny.

Unfortunately, Hollywood movies like “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web” which use 48 and 47 pigs respectively – each trained to just one trick, give the public the false impression that pigs are as intelligent as dogs or even people. They aren’t. The movie magic gives a false impression of intelligence through the use of look-a-likes and cuts in the filming. This is just like the stunts – you don’t really think Super Man leaps tall buildings or the Wolverine has Adamantium claws that shoot out of his fist, do you? It’s fun, but pig’s aren’t intelligent like dogs or people. First time you play chess with one or listen to their poetry you’ll understand what I mean.

Brain size doesn’t even say it all. I’ve dealt with thousands of pigs and dozens of dogs over many generations in their natural environments. I’ve trained many of both as well as having trained many other animals. I know how to teach them and how to manipulate their natural behaviors. Pigs have a range of things that are in their ken. Dogs have a much wider ken, a much wider range of behaviors. Pigs are herd animals where the primary motivation is selfish personal interest – thus the whole reason that pigs are associated with acting like a, well, a pig. Pigs want sex, food, a nice place to lay down and companionship – in that order. In a herd their primary goal is to not get eaten but rather to let some weaker member of the herd get sacrificed instead of them. The exception is the sow protecting her nest – and she won’t leave it far – and the boar who’s hopped up on hormones to protect his territory. Realize the sow is not really protecting the piglets – she’s protecting the nesting site.

Dogs, on the other hand, are predatory pack animals who have to communicate and work with other members of their pack, study their prey, out think it, communicate complex concepts and plans and kill their prey without getting hurt even though said prey animals are often much larger and more powerful than the wolves. Predators strongly tend to be more intelligent than their prey for this reason. (There are exceptions like sharks but we’ll ignore them since they perfected their predation techniques over literally 300 million years of evolution.) The result is dogs have a team spirit, an ability to work together toward common goals, that pigs just don’t naturally have.

Think about it this way: a small 30 lb livestock herding and guarding dog like Romula can not only protect a farm’s livestock from coyotes, bears and the like who out mass her by an order of magnitude but she can move and control a herd of sheep, cattle or hundreds of pigs ranging in size from the small 10 lb piglets to the giant 1,000 lb boars. They move where she wants them to move. The fact is: Dogs rule. It’s not that Romula has bigger teeth, she doesn’t. It’s not that she is stronger, she’s not. It’s not that she’s bigger, she’s not. It’s simply that she’s more intelligent at what she does – she’s a predator and can turn those instincts, through learning, to herd protection. Now put her in a pack of many dogs like Romula and they work wonders together.

Pigs are very good at being pigs. But pigs are not intelligent like dogs and they certainly don’t have human level intelligence. I like pigs. They’re fun. “Babe” and “Charlotte’s Web” are fun movies. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Pigs are not people.

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About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor…

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18 Responses to Of Pig Brains and Tea Cups

  1. Sheila Z says:

    The only reason farm animal species survive is because people keep breeding them to use for food sources otherwise they would face extinction.

  2. David Lloyd Sutton says:

    Well, Sheila and Leon, I’ll try to remember that the next time I see flourishing feral hogs busily dominating the environment in California, Missiouri ,Tennessee, or Georgia, or encounter feral cattle in Texas, or wild horses in New Mexico. I’ve read that even goats went feral fairly often in the Scots highlands, as long as they could find an abandoned croft to poop in to make composting beds. I’ll concede on modern sheep breeds and dairy cattle and battery chickens, though. Incapable of survival outside our care.

    Walter, did you harvest Anna for failing reproduction, or bad attitude? I’m guessing she didn’t die naturally, or you wouldn’t be a’butcherin’ her?

    • Anna became aggressive in her old age so she went to meet the sausage maker . She had learned she could get away with head butting and biting at my kids. Best not to mess with my kin, I eat mean people. Anna got made into hot dogs. We also had a couple of steaks off of her for “scientific taste testing” as I like to call it. She was delicious.

      This isn’t to say pigs aren’t good at being pigs in the slightest – they are very good at that. They just don’t have the intelligence of dogs – something I see a lot of people comparing them with. The reality is, dogs rule.

  3. Leon says:

    > The reality is, dogs rule.

    They do. Kinda sorta :)

    I heard it somewhere that animals (including peoples, I guess) could be compared to software, and the more things you want it to do, the worse it will be doing each single one of them. Dogs are pretty universal programs – they have a lot of different behaviors and tools in their arsenal but people sometimes fail to appreciate it because we have even more. On the other hand, people often mistake a set of very few specialized behaviors, each honed to the point of perfection, (a.k.a. “being a pig”) with intellect because to us intellect/talent is often the explanation behind amazing skills we admire.

    I’m not saying dogs’ (and our) approach (masters of all trades with most of our behaviors learned, not pre-programmed before birth) is better than what sheep or pigs or chickens have (it actually worse in some situations/environments) but it certainly closer to “intellect”, however you define it.

    Which has nothing to do with anyone’s ability to survive – it’s not “survival of the smartest” (or strongest or fastest) – it’s the “fittest” that I think means “most fitting to a particular environment”. I bet you even sheep and battery chickens will do just fine without humans in proper environments and I sure have never doubted that pigs can do it. (That last part is for David, who seemed to misunderstood me :)

  4. Caryn says:

    Butchered our first pigs this last weekend and had some great biology lessons (difference between mammals and the birds we normally butcher mainly), but didn’t think to split the head to look at the brain. For shame! Thanks for filling in the gaps for us! ;)

  5. David Hull says:

    Hello Walter,

    My question is about keeping pigs in an oak stand. We did an oak cut recently, and it seems that putting our pigs in the oak would give them some acorns and might allow the slash to break down more quickly. I (and my forester) am concerned that the pigs would destroy a large portion of the oak saplings/seedlings that are coming up. I wondered how quickly the pigs would need to move out of an area before the young tree bark became their preferred food source. Any thoughts?

    Thanks.
    David Hull

    • I would be quite concerned about the pigs damaging the oak saplings. My inclination would be to run the pigs through immediately after cutting and then keep them off for a decade to see what the size of the trees were then and how well they would be able to handle pigs. Different size pigs would result in different damage. After five years you might be able to run weaner pigs through fine but not roasters or finishers.

      • David Hull says:

        Thanks.

        The amount of work to get them some acorns might be too much to make it worthwhile, anyway. Once the stand is more established and I have an easier water system for that part of the farm I’ll look into it again.

        David

        • I really like the idea of acorns too. Unfortunately there are none on our land. I’m told we’re too high. There are some about 1,000′ lower and about a mile distant, maybe a little more. I keep meaning to plant oaks but it hasn’t happened yet. I probably should have done it a hundred years ago given that they’re slow growers. :) What we do have is beechnuts, among other things, and the pigs love those.

  6. Adam Ante says:

    Fascinating picutre Walter but for other reasons than you present. I had not realized pigs were so thick headed. They have a huge amount of bone in their skulls and in perticular right in the front which blocks the bullet during slaughter. Human skulls are much much much thinner. This means a pig head doesn’t make a good comparison with a human head for ballistics test which I had thought it did based on some tv show I had seen.

  7. Jeel says:

    So pigs are really smart? That is so funny. Your right that hollywood certainly has been pulling the wool over our eyes on that. I know intellectually that in animal movies they have lots animals and trainers and it is all tricks and special effects but it is so convincing we forget. Certainly with a tiny brain like that they’re not going to be doing a lot of thinking. I bet most of their brain is for smelling truffls and stuff.

  8. amber says:

    Wow, that’s what I was exploring for thanks!

  9. Daniel says:

    As for the acorns… Our pigs love them! We only have a few oaks on our property, but neighbors and friends collect them for us. We got 75 lbs or more for free and collect from other areas around us, with the landowners consent of course. My question is can we end up feeding too many acorns and is there a time we should avoid or a better time to give them more acorns, like a month or so before butchering?

    • We don’t have oaks, although there are trees at lower elevations below us down in the valley. As such I don’t have experience with feeding them. I have read of people finishing on acorns and contrarily using acorns as the grower feed and then finishing on barley or corn.

  10. Sometimes someone will email saying that pigs are brainy. The reality is they aren’t. I’m basing my view on experience with thousands of pigs and dozens of dogs. Realize I breed dogs for intelligence and pigs for stupidity, fast growth and large size early. Our pack members are not your average dogs but working dogs raised in a multigenerational pack. Totally different objectives.

    Pig brains are tiny relative to the size of the pig and also significantly smaller than dog brains. I have very large pigs which have brains the size of small chicken eggs. My dogs are ‘large’ but tiny compared with a pig yet the dog brains are far larger than the pig brains. Yes, size does matter as does genetics and purpose. The pigs brains are largely devoted to smell, have virtually no cooperative behavior and function primarily as eating and breeders.

    The dogs have a large language capability both expressive and receptive and work cooperatively as a pack.

    Our working dogs win hands down on the intelligence scale compared with domestic meat pigs. Different functions, different selective pressures, different results.

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