Dolly the mini pig enjoys belly scratches, bathtub swims and nibbling bare toes.
"She squeaks when you squeeze her sides," says Kelsey Vasileff, gently pressing her pet pig's rotund flanks.
Snork! Snork! Dolly exuberantly replies, her tail flicking back and forth.
No doubt about it, at 6 months old and just 20 pounds, Dolly is adorable. She makes it easy to see why miniature pigs are a trend — a trend that Harrison-based veterinarian Dr. Patrick Tyree hopes is coming to an end.
Over the course of his 24-year career, Tyree says he has watched a number of different animals fall in and out of fashion. Among farmers, there have been llamas, alpacas and emus. Among pet-owners, there have been ferrets, chinchillas and, 20 years ago, the first mini pig fad.
A miniature pig is a breed of pig developed for its relatively small size. They are sometimes called micro pigs, pocket pigs or teacup pigs — though, the only pig small enough to fit into a teacup is a newborn. Mini pigs continue to grow until age 4 and range in weight from 30 to 300 pounds, depending on pedigree and diet.
One of the only ways to predict the adult size of a mini pig, Tyree says, is to see the animal's parents, which Vasileff did. Thus, she says she expects Dolly to weigh around 30 pounds when fully grown.Blake Blamalam and Eddie Hewitt, however, did not know what to expect four years ago when they adopted their mini pig, Sow Manella.
"When I first got her, I could hold her in my arms," Blamalam says of her and Hewitt's now 250-pound pet.
Luckily, Blamalam had done her research and knew that mini pigs could range in size. And, like Hewitt points out, farm hogs can range in weight from 800 to 1,200 pounds. "Compared to that, she is mini," he says.
"Hogs are bred to gain weight efficiently. You put them on a low-calorie diet and they still convert that to weight," Tyree says. Obesity, he says, is the most common problem he treats in pet pigs — and he treats an average of six pigs per week.
So, what caused miniature pigs to become popular again?
Animals trends, Tyree says, are cyclical, and often dictated by what he calls the "breeders market." The breeders market refers to individuals who breed animals and who are adept at predicting the next "fad pet."
"Then [the breeders] ride that wave and flood the market until the animals no longer seem unique and nobody wants one anymore," says Tyree, who does not conceal his contempt for the purportedly intelligent animal.
"[Pigs] are loud and messy and smart to a detriment," he says.
Pigs are considered among the top 10 most intelligent animals on earth, which is partly why they have adapted as house pets. They are easily house-broken, leash-trained and taught tricks. Dolly can jump on command. Sow Manella bows, and even taught herself how to open the refrigerator, then the oven. When Blamalam and Hewitt secured their appliances with child-safety locks, Sow Manella learned to open those, too.
The pig's destructiveness was partly the couple's impetus for moving their pet pig outdoors. The other was that her affections became crushing.
"She'd crawl on the couch and leave bruises on your legs," Hewitt says.
Now, Sow Manella resides in the couple's large fenced-in backyard, complete with her own sofa and shed. In the springtime, Sow Manella likes to uproot fresh foliage and arrange it in the shed. Every evening, she positions herself in the pen where she can see into the kitchen.
"She knows what time we cook dinner," Hewitt says.Pigs are social animals, Blamalam says, but, "If you think that having a pig is going to be like having a dog, it's not. They need more than a dog."
Vasileff compares raising Dolly to raising a half-puppy/half-toddler. When Dolly gets upset, she is prone to tantrums replete with head-butting and squealing. Sometimes the best way to calm her down, Vasileff says, is to swaddle her in blankets.
Education is paramount before committing to a pet pig, Tyree says. And Richard Hoyle, director of the The Pig Preserve in Jamestown, Tennessee, agrees. The Pig Preserve is a 100-acre sanctuary that rescues farm pigs, feral pigs and pet pigs. Currently the preserve cares for 135 pigs rescued from across the country.
"Sanctuaries around the U.S. estimate that at least 90-95 percent of pigs obtained as pets will be dead, abandoned or given up to a sanctuary or shelter before their second birthday," Hoyle says. "The number of so-called 'teacup' pigs needing rescue or re-homing has just exploded in the past several years."
In part, he says, that is because the pig breeding business is unregulated.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently classifies miniature pigs as livestock, meaning they are not protected under the Animal Welfare Act. Therefore, breeders are not required to have a USDA license, which makes it easier for bad breeders to follow poor practices and mislead prospective pig owners about the animal's eventual size, Hoyle says.
The Lowdown on Pig Law
While the federal government classifies miniature pigs and pot-bellied pigs as "swine," which are considered livestock, it is the state or local governments that typically regulate companion and farm animals.
According to Chattanooga city code, keeping swine within the city limits is against the law on property other than agriculturally zoned land, unless the animals are kept on a tract of land containing five or more acres. However, the code states that this does not apply to miniature pigs and pot-bellied pigs kept as house pets — good news for both Dolly and Sow Manella.
But Tyree is optimistic that the miniature pig trend is coming to an end.
"The market is almost saturated. There are only so many homes that can care for pigs," says Tyree, who, amid all the reasons he sees not to own a pet pig, admits, "[Pigs] do tend to be very loyal animals."
In fact, Vasileff never had to leash-train Dolly. When she goes for walks, Dolly follows close at her heels. Snork! Snork! Dolly sings as she trots.
What will follow the pet pig fad? Tyree has a couple of predictions.
"House rabbits," he says. "Or maybe chinchillas. They were big in the 1970s. Maybe they'll be back."