One of the most controversial aspects of industrial pork production is the widespread practice of gestation crates. Used to confine pregnant pigs in spaces so tight that animals can’t turn themselves around, the systems were developed to help hog farmers run the most efficient animal feeding operation possible. In 2023, nine U.S. states have banned gestation crates, and most consumers oppose them according to public polling research.
What Are Gestation Crates?
Gestation crates are narrow cages barely bigger than an adult pig — about 7 feet by 2 feet. Female pigs, also called sows, are locked into gestation crates after they become pregnant, where they will remain until after they give birth.
The crates’ floors are made up of metal bars so the pigs’ feces can fall directly into a pit below. Usually, the pigs are unable to sit down for weeks on end.
What Is the Purpose of Gestation Crates?
The pork industry argues that gestation crates are humane and necessary for production, preventing animals from hurting one another and allowing farmers to monitor their health closely. Yet these goals are achieved by placing an incredible level of restriction on these pregnant pigs — limiting even modest movement.
Pigs in captivity are known to bite each other when kept in close quarters. To animal researchers and farmers, this is a serious welfare concern. Research into pig welfare shows that a lack of environmental enrichment is the most prominent cause of tail-biting.
Farrowing Crates Versus Gestation Crates
Farrowing crates and gestation crates are very similar in design, both restricting movement and harming the pigs’ bodies and minds. Their primary difference is the timing of their use: gestation crates are used during pregnancy and farrowing crates are used after a mother has given birth. Farrowing crates also have a small opening on one side that allows piglets to suckle (although this space is insufficient for the mother to move around). In all other regards, including animal welfare, these crates are essentially identical.
How Long Are Pigs Kept in Gestation Crates?
Sows will remain inside gestation crates for the entirety of their pregnancies, which is a little under four months. The sow is typically moved to a farrowing crate for about three weeks to wean her babies. However, the babies are then forcibly taken from the mother, usually destined to be killed after a few weeks or months, causing distress for both the sow and her piglets. After a brief recover period, the mother pig is then impregnated again, and the cycle begins anew.
How Many Pigs Are Kept in a Gestation Crate?
Unlike other forms of mass confinement in factory farming, such as chicken pens, only one pig is kept in a gestation crate at any one time. However, the crate is specifically designed so that one pig is unable to move around within the crate.
Are Gestation Crates Still Used?
Yes, gestation crates are still quite commonly used by farmers, despite criticism from veterinarians and animal welfare advocates.
Are Gestation Crates Legal?
Yes, in most places in the U.S., gestation crates are legal.
Where Are Gestation Crates Banned?
In the U.S. in 2023, nine states have banned gestation crates: Michigan, Colorado, Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Massachusetts, Maine and Rhode Island. A 10th state, Ohio, has a ban on the books that will take effect in 2026.
The ban in California covers the sale of pork that has been raised using gestation crates, wherever that pork is from. This has been subject to legal challenge — in the case of National Pork Producers Council v. Ross — the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, siding against the pork industry group.
In Europe all cages for pigs have been banned since 2013, except for five weeks around a pregnancy, which is shorter than the U.S. timespan. This minimal use of cages will itself be eliminated by 2027, according to a decree from the European Parliament. Other countries, including New Zealand, Canada and Australia are also reducing or phasing out this harmful practice.
Why Are Gestation Crates Bad?
Pigs are incredibly intelligent animals, capable of solving puzzles and navigating mazes. They are also playful, known for frolicking with balls and other toys when given time and space to relax. Pigs are as socially complex as dolphins, whales and primates; each group has complex interactions, with each pig having best friends, families and animosities. Pigs have even been shown to take the perspective of other pigs and animals, indicating a complex level of empathy beyond most very young human children.
Gestation crates restrict social interaction, play and the space to learn from each other. Beyond the emotional and social effects, crates also cause physical injuries.
Gestation crates are quite literally designed to inhibit sows’ behavior. Not only does this have profound psychological effects but it harms their physical health as well. They can become lame since they are unable to move around, sometimes injuring their feet or legs. They also experience worse cardiac health and weakened immune systems.
Sows kept in cages are prone to a number of physical issues, such as lesions from rubbing their skin against the hard metal.
Many farmed animals and other animals kept in captivity exhibit stereotypy, or behaviors that are repetitive and have no observable function. If you’ve ever seen a tiger in a zoo pacing back and forth, ignoring all stimuli, for what seems like hours on end, you’ve seen stereotypy.
Because stereotypy is indicative of poor conditions and care, it is hardly surprising that farmed sows often exhibit these behaviors. Pigs in gestation crates are likely to repeatedly bite the metal bars of their crate, harming themselves in the process. This behavior is exacerbated by poor conditions, low welfare standards and lack of space.
Stereotypy is unlikely to go away if pigs are removed from gestation crates. It is quite common among all animals suffering in factory farms, regardless of the housing they are contained in.
Pork farms produce massive amounts of animal waste, often stored in what are called manure lagoons. The waste pollutes local waterways, which damages biodiversity and the health of local human communities. Sentient Media has reported on how these lagoons are harming communities in North Carolina, where local government is unable to reign in factory farm expansion. Such communities in the U.S. are disproportionately likely to be Black or Latino, an example of the environmental racism perpetuated by animal agriculture.
Manure lagoons are an unfortunate byproduct of the factory farms that confine animals in a small area and use practices like gestation crates to deal with the overcrowding they have created. As long as industrialized pig agriculture and its practices continue, these lagoons are likely to keep harming the environment and local human communities.
Are There Alternatives to Gestation Crates?
Yes, there are alternatives. However, these alternatives are not widely used. An estimated 70 percent of U.S. female pigs are housed in gestation crates at some point in their lives.
In group pens, also called group housing, pigs are given access to a large, common space with individual nesting areas for each sow. This is beneficial for the mother and piglets, provided that the farmers make sure to group pigs together who are from the same parity (have had the same number of litters).
In a free-range system, pigs have roaming ability over an enclosed section of land, with nesting areas for individual sows provided by the farmers.
Free-range solutions for pigs, as with all forms of animal agriculture, require more labor from the farmers. Since the industry is dominated by big power players eager to turn as large a profit as possible, these animal welfare solutions are unfortunately quite rare.
All forms of animal agriculture require confinement, and gestation crates are just one, albeit egregious example of what is standard industry practice across all meat production. Eating less pork is a way to reduce reliance on these industry practices.
What You Can Do
In addition to shifting to a more plant-rich and sustainable diet, you can support initiatives to ban gestation crates in your state. You can also donate or contribute to local animal sanctuaries, like Catskill sanctuary in New York. More options can be found on our Take Action page.
This piece has been updated.
Björn Jóhann Ólafsson is an Icelandic-American writer who examines the psychology of eating animals, the environmental footprint of the meat industry, and the plant-based meat industry. He lives in Spain with his two lovebirds.