This study investigated the benefits of hot-water spraying (HWS) as a diagnostic test to verify the absence of signs of life (SOL) before scalding in pigs slaughtered with carbon dioxide (CO2) stunning. A total of 37 108 finishing pigs from five German abattoirs (A to E) operating at 55 to 571 pigs per hour were assessed. Suspended pigs were sprayed onto the muzzle, head and front legs (143 to 258 s post sticking for 4 to 10 s, 57°C to 72°C). Any active movements during HWS were rated as positive test outcomes. In comparison, SOL were considered to be absent if a subsequent manual examination was negative and no active movements were observed following HWS. The incidence of pigs with activity during hot-water spraying (PWA) was restricted to two abattoirs (B: 0.25%; D: 0.02%; A, C, E: 0.00%). PWA showed movements of facial muscles (88%), mouth opening (78%), righting reflex (63%), isolated leg movements (35%) and vocalization (4%). The manual examination was positive in 71% of PWA (corneal/dazzle reflex: 67%/53%, nasal septum pinch: 33%), whereas all inactive pigs tested negative (P<0.001). The sensitivity for HWS as a test for SOL was calculated as 100%, dropping to 75% when only obvious and strong movements were taken into account. The specificity was >99.9% in either case. Any positive manual findings as well as any respiratory activity were instantly terminated using a penetrating captive bolt. Active movements triggered by the shot were shown to be an indicator for SOL (P<0.001). Video analyses revealed that spontaneous movements (SM) following sticking were present in 100% of PWA as opposed to 3.1% in pigs without such activity (controls). Results for different categories of SM in PWA v. controls were as follows: 100% v. 2.6% for mouth opening, 16.0% v. 0.1% for righting reflex and 22.0% v. 0.9% for isolated leg movements (all P<0.001). First mouth opening after sticking was observed later in PWA (28±24 v. 10±7 s), but mouth openings were observed for a longer period of time (141±44 v. 27±25 s) (both P<0.001). PWA with shorter mouth-opening intervals showed higher movement intensities during HWS and more positive manual findings (P<0.05). We conclude that HWS is a promising test for SOL. SM and sustained mouth opening in particular are indicators for compromised animal welfare and affected pigs should be shot by captive bolt.
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