Alpaca and llama care presents unique challenges

With their long faces and even longer necks, llamas and alpacas have become a popular feature on farms and acreages across Western Canada.

Many of the South American camelids are added to sheep, goat and cattle herds for predator control, while others occupy the pastures of hobby farms. Wool from alpaca fibre sells at a premium and is increasingly sought after by knitters and crocheters, including me.

In their native South America, llamas are used as pack animals and as an important source of meat and fibre. Their importance to ancient Inca culture cannot be understated, with some arguing that llama domestication was absolutely essential to the expansive empire.

Pinpointing the exact wild ancestors of llamas and alpacas is fraught with controversy. Modern studies using genetic analysis suggest that alpacas were domesticated from wild guanaco, while alpacas descend from wild vicugnas. Both wild species are native to South America and were domesticated 6,000 years ago.

Besides these wild ancestors, old world camels (of the desert variety, with or without humps) are closely related to modern-day alpacas and llamas.

Both species are known for their ease of handling and general trainability, but it can be challenging to collect blood, administer intravenous injections or insert intravenous catheters because the neck bones protect most of the jugular vein. Where it is not covered by bone, the skin is thick.

An additional challenge is that the carotid artery, which is the major blood supply to the head, is close to the vein. Accidentally injecting medication into the carotid artery can be fatal.

These species are susceptible to an interesting mix of cattle, sheep and horse infectious diseases. For example, West Nile Virus, the bacteria Streptococcus zooepidemicus and equine herpes virus are normally horse-associated pathogens that can sometimes infect camelids.

Bovine viral diarrhea seems to be associated with sub-clinical illness in llamas and alpacas, with persistently infected carriers spreading the virus. Experimental infection of this virus in alpacas has caused white blood cell depletion, immunosuppression and likely increased susceptibility to bacterial infections.

Persistently infected crias can be identified with skin biopsies, in the same way that persistently infected calves are diagnosed.

Johne’s disease in alpacas and llamas presents similarly to cattle, with affected animals experiencing weight loss and diarrhea. When these animals develop cancer, it is most often lymphoma involving lymph nodes and internal organs such as the liver.

Llamas and alpacas have a few interesting anatomical and physiological peculiarities that set them apart from traditional farm animals.

Unlike cattle and sheep, these camelids have a three-compartment stomach rather than four, but they will chew on their cud like a typical ruminant.

Their reproduction is especially bizarre.

Mating induces ovulation, which is the release of the female’s eggs into the oviduct and uterus for fertilization. It seems as though a small protein in llama and alpaca semen travels to the female’s brain and stimulates the chain of hormonal events that leads to ovulation. Their red blood cells are oval-shaped, compared to spherical in most mammals, and retain their DNA, as do reptiles and birds.

A major issue with preventive health care in llamas and alpacas is that most medications and vaccines have not been specifically tested in these animals, likely because of their relatively small numbers.

Llamas and alpacas require routine hoof maintenance and should be checked and trimmed as needed.

Another routine husbandry procedure involves trimming canine or “fighting” teeth in males to prevent injury to other males and people.

A variety of internal worms, mites and lice can infect llamas and alpacas, so regular fecal parasite checks and deworming are just as important as in other farm animals. Owners should work closely with their veterinarian to develop an appropriate vaccination and deworming plan as well as other proactive health-care procedures.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger is a veterinarian who practices pathology and a PhD student at the Ontario Veterinary College. Twitter: @DrJamieR_Vet

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