Keeping Your Alpaca Healthy

Alpacas are highly adaptable animals. They have a hardy constitution cultivated over millennia living in the high, hostile Andes Mountains. It is rare for these animals to need more in the way of standard veterinary care than;

  • castration
  • worming
  • annual inoculations
  • Vitamin D supplementation
  • toenail clipping

Because shearing of pets is a way to avoid heat stress it is technically a ”healthcare” procedure, but obviously if the alpacas are kept as fibre producers, shearing occurs annually for reasons of profit.

Preferably BEFORE you purchase your alpacas, you should locate a qualified veterinarian who will agree to care for your animals. Under the best circumstances, you will find a doctor with previous experience treating the animals.

Most “large animal” veterinarians who have treated sheep and goats can work with you to care for your alpacas, but it is imperative that the vet is agreeable to learning about the species and to consulting with other veterinarians who have expert knowledge in alpaca care.

It is to your benefit and to that of your animals that you cultivate a good working knowledge of alpaca healthcare needs. This will not only help you to make good decisions about the welfare of your animals, but also to control costs in this area of alpaca care.

At the very least, developing a working understanding of alpaca healthcare will help you to ask better questions.

I do not personally like to move forward with a healthcare procedure or treatment with any kind of animal until I am comfortable that I understand what is being done and why.

This is very much like the concept of ”informed consent” in human healthcare. To truly be informed about the care your animals are receiving, you need to understand both the potential benefits and complications.

Body Scoring

As a basic evaluation of overall alpaca health, body scoring is a simple and fast method to determine the general state of the animal’s well-being.

  • Hold or stand by the side of the alpaca.
  • Place your hand flat on the animal’s back about 15 cm behind the withers.
  • Put your palm on the spine and your thumb on the ribs to one side of the backbone with your fingers to the other side. Press down firmly until you can feel the spine and ribs.
  • In healthy animals, you will feel a smooth line of flesh running from the spine to the ribs that is not indented (concave) or rounded (convex). Your thumb and forefingers will be in the shape of a ”V.”
  • If the spine protrudes upward and into your hand and the ribs are concave, the alpaca is overly thin.
  • If your thumb and fingers are relatively parallel and vertical to the animal, the alpaca is dangerously thin.
  • If your hand opens wide with bulging flesh between the spine and ribs, the alpaca is overweight. If your hand is horizontal and essentially flat, the animal is obese.

This simple evaluation can be performed daily in the morning or evening, and is easily done while you are feeding the alpacas.

Castration or Gelding

Many alpaca breeders castrate or ”geld” males they do not intend to use for breeding purposes or that will be sold as pets when the animals are less than a year old. It’s estimated that more than 80% of male alpacas are gelded, with only the top 10% used in breeding programs.

If your purchase a young male alpaca (18-24 months), the animal will likely already have been gelded, but be sure to ask. Since alpacas are herd animals that should not live alone, an intact male will have aggression issues due to the testosterone in his system.

At around three years of age, male alpacas develop ”fighting teeth.” These teeth grow into the lower jaw between the incisors and molars. They are very sharp and grow continuously, requiring annual trimming. Fighting males can seriously injure each other if this chore is not performed.

As an example of just how vicious an alpaca fight can be, and how seriously these animals take the matter of herd dominance, in the wild, a dominant male alpaca will sometimes use his fighting teeth at the end of a particularly violent struggle to castrate his opponent.

Worming

Like all livestock, alpacas become infested with parasites when they consume the eggs or larvae while grazing. If your local veterinarian has no previous experience with alpacas, the best course of action is to take a faecal sample to determine the correct de-worming agent to use.

If no other animals are being kept on the land, alpacas can be wormed twice a year, typically in May and November. When other livestock, especially sheep, are kept in the same field, you may need to worm more often.

As with sheep, worming is accomplished via “drenching,” which is the administration of a liquid de-wormer orally. Care must be taken, however, that the parasites present don’t become resistant to the de-worming agent.

Again, advice should be sought from your local veterinarian and other, more experienced alpaca farmers in your region about the frequency with which drenching should be administered and in what dosage.

But generally worm at 6 month intervals eg May and November. But if you have other livestock you’ll need to worm more often (consult your vet)

I feel it’s important to rotate worming products to help avoid building up resistance.

(Please note that if you are keeping alpacas in an area with a native population of whitetail deer, your animals will require monthly injections as protection against meningeal worms.)

Shearing

Obviously animals that are raised primarily for their fibre will be sheared on an annual basis. If you are keeping alpacas purely as pets, Huacaya alpacas must be sheared annually to guard against heat stress.

Suri alpacas can be sheared every other year. Shearing should be timed so that the animals have regrown at least 12.54 cm of fleece before the weather turns cold.

Teeth

The front teeth shouldn’t protrude from the upper jaw as this can make grazing difficult. You’ll need to trim the teeth back. Your vet is probably best as they can do this for you with clippers or dental wire. You may wish to consult a horse dentist who generally have a good understanding of this problem and can help reshape the whole jaw if required.

If you have a group of males you should trim the fighting teeth back to help stop them damaging other alpacas whilst they sort the pecking order out!

Feet

The toenails should not grow longer than the edge of the toe. If they do simply trim them back with sheep foot rot shears. Make sure you clear the dirt out so you can clearly see where the toe flesh is. The foot should be able to stand flat on the ground without twisting.

Vitamin D Supplementation

During the winter months, alpacas may require Vitamin D supplementation. Darker animals with dense fleece are even more susceptible to Vitamin D deficiency and to developing rickets. Again, however, the need for Vitamin D supplementation varies greatly by region and climate as well as by age of the animal.

Overdosing with Vitamin D can lead to organ failure. The supplement can be given as an injection or orally, but both forms should not be used at the same time.

Most vets are in agreement that the injectable Vitamin D is more readily absorbed and can be administered once every 60 days. The oral form is often given every 2 weeks.

A veterinarian should always be consulted before Vitamin D or any other kind of supplementation is used with your alpacas. Correct dosing with these products is essential.

Vaccination Protocols by Region

Working with your local veterinarian to determine the correct inoculations for your alpacas is critical. Disease and parasites VARY GREATLY by location and climate. These factors MUST be considered in developing a vaccination protocol for your animals.

In the UK, for instance, alpacas are vulnerable to the Bluetongue serotype viruses that are active on the continent as well as to local parasites like strongyle worms. Some areas of Britain also see a high prevalence of liver flukes.

In Britain, the recommended clostridial vaccinations are:

  • Lambivac
  • Covexin 10
  • Heptavac-P Plus (includes Pasteurella)
  • Ovivac or Ovivac-P
  • Heptavac is used to protect against:
  • Lamb Dysentery
  • Struck
  • Pulpy Kidney
  • Braxy
  • Blackleg
  • Tetanus
  • Black Disease

Tetanus can develop all too easily from a simple cut. For this reason, annual CDT injections that protect against both tetanus and clostridial diseases are recommended.

Depending on your location, assume that your alpacas are vulnerable to all the diseases and parasites from Which sheep can suffer.

In the US, recommended vaccinations include, but are not limited to:

  • IMRAB 3 (rabies)
  • CDT (tetanus and clostridium)
  • leptospirosis

These and other vaccinations used with alpacas in the US. are considered ”off label” and have not been approved for use with these animals by the US. Department of Agriculture. Individual vets may have different opinions about which drugs work best.

(Please note that this information is provided as the basis for a conversation with your veterinarian about the vaccinations your animals will require and is not intended to be taken as a set protocol. I cannot stress strongly enough that required inoculations vary by region and should be dispensed according to expert veterinary advice.)

Toenail Clipping

Trimming your alpaca’s toenails will be as easy or as hard as the animal decides to make it. This is a job that absolutely demands patience, and a willingness to concede defeat in any single session and finish the job on another day.

Standing on three legs while one foot is being held up for the trimming is an act of supreme trust on the part of the alpaca. Remember that you are dealing with a prey animal whose primary instinct when he feels threatened is to run.

In the wild, on the rocky slopes of their native South American mountainous range, alpacas keep their hooves worn down naturally. When they are pastured on soft ground, however, trimming is essential.

Animals with light coloured toenails will need even more frequent trimmings as dark nails are harder and grow much slower. In some instance dark nails will only need to be trimmed annually at the time the animal is being sheared.

If the nails are not trimmed, they may cause the toe to twist painfully and pinch the pad. Long nails ultimately break off, leading the animal to go lame. It is even possible for a nail to overgrow to the point that it perforates the pad and causes a painful wound.

If you look at the underside of an alpaca’s foot, you will see two toes and the soft pad. There are two nails.

  • Cradle the foot in your hand, with the underside up and visible.
  • Use a pair of garden pruning shears.*
  • Carefully trim the nails until they sit level with the bottom of the pad.

*There are many kind of clippers that will work well including those specifically designed to be used with sheep and goats. The important thing is that the implement be comfortable in your hand for maximum control and sharp enough to accomplish the trimming quickly and efficiently.

Conditions Common to Alpacas

All of the following conditions are common to alpacas, but like all health matters concerning these animals, are greatly affected by location. Also, this is not an all-inclusive list, but rather an overview of conditions commonly associated with alpacas.

Rickets or Vitamin D Deficiency

Alpacas of less than 2 years of age as well as females who are pregnant or nursing can be susceptible to rickets as a result of Vitamin D deficiency. This is also true of animals with especially thick fleece.

During the winter months the lower levels of sunlight cause an abnormal ratio of calcium to phosphate, which affects bone growth. Demineralization of the long bones, called osteomalacia, accompanies rickets and presents with a painful series of symptoms including:

  • a hunched posture
  • obvious discomfort when moving
  • walking slowly with legs splayed
  • the appearance of leaning backward while walking

An affected animal will lag behind the rest of the flock and spend most of its time in the kush or resting position with the legs tucked under the body.

Treatment for rickets includes injections of Vitamin D and phosphorous supplements, but care must be taken not to overdose the alpaca with toxic levels. Consultation with a knowledgeable veterinarian is essential.

Tuberculosis

Alpacas have little if any resistance to tuberculosis and are extremely vulnerable to the disease. This susceptibility is complicated by the fact that there is no reliable TB test that can be used. The skin test used widely with cattle detects only about 2000 of cases in alpacas and the blood test is equally unreliable and often gives false positives.

Signs of tuberculosis in alpacas include:

  • lethargy
  • self-isolation from the group
  • weight loss (often sudden)
  • coughing

If the disease develops in the thoracic and abdominal cavities there may be no visible signs. TB often progresses so rapidly that the animals are simply discovered dead in the pasture for no apparent reason.

Under these circumstances, it’s important that a vet examine the body to determine if TB is present. Interestingly, however, alpacas do not then seem to transmit the disease among themselves, but rather to contract it from other infected livestock, usually cattle.

TB can also be transmitted from wildlife to alpacas. In the UK, for instance, tuberculosis is present in Shropshire badgers.

These animals come into the pasture to forage on animal droppings and can infect alpacas grazing in the area. Badgers can only be kept out of fields by burying Wire three feet/ 1 meter into the ground on the fenced perimeter.

Check with your local alpaca association to see if there is a program for testing and reporting cases of tuberculosis.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Tuberculosis is a zoonotic disease and can be transmitted from animal to humans.

Dietary Poisoning

All grazing animals can be inadvertently poisoned by plants with which they come into contact in the pasture. This is also true of garden plants to which alpacas may be exposed on smaller farms adjacent to planted yards.

Plants known to be poisonous to alpacas include, but are not limited to:

  • nightshade
  • rhododendrons
  • lilies
  • azaleas
  • solanums
  • inkweed
  • foxglove
  • oleander
  • hemlock
  • willow weed
  • tutu (toot)
  • ragwort
  • ngaio
  • datura
  • mallow
  • Jerusalem cherry
  • yew
  • buttercup
  • laurel
  • irises
  • macrocarpa
  • bracken fern
  • helebores
  • daffodils

If you suspect that your alpaca has ingested a poisonous plant, immediately seek the assistance of a qualified veterinarian.

Facial Eczema

Facial eczema in livestock is caused by a mycotoxin in the pasture. The spores of various types of fungus contain sporidesmin, a toxic chemical that damages the liver, preventing the normal breakdown of metabolic and digestive toxins in the bloodstream.

As these toxins build up, the compounds that leach into the skin react to sunlight. Clinical symptoms include:

  • skin irritation
  • crusting and oozing of the ears and nose
  • decreased growth rates in young animals
  • spontaneous abortions

Since alpacas hide signs of illness, liver disease is often not discovered until the animal has succumbed to a sudden death and a liver biopsy is performed.

Ryegrass Staggers

In areas where perennial ryegrass is popular, alpacas can be exposed to the endophyte fungus Acremonium lilii. When ingested, the mycotixns produced by the fungus attack the brain and central nervous system causing ”ryegrass staggers.”

Symptoms of the condition include tremors of the head and neck and an unstable gait (ataxia). If left untreated, the alpaca will collapse and die.

Susceptibility seems to have a genetic component, and ryegrass staggers are seen more frequently in the summer and autumn. Hay cut from an infected pasture remains toxic, however, so animals can be symptomatic at any time.

If treated at an early stage with Mycosorb or Biomass in combination with good quality lucerne hay and fresh water, the alpaca will recover within a few weeks.

Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD)

Bovine viral diarrhoea is a disease that has affected alpacas in North America since 2001. It is acute and short term, and if the alpacas are healthy, their robust immune system is usually capable of eradicating the illness quickly.

However, if the virus is contracted by a pregnant female, the chances that she will abort the foetus are high. If the baby lives, it may well be infected with a carrier of the virus.