Llamas and Alpacas

Kelsey Gerwig, a Winterset High School graduate who is now in her sophomore year at the College of Veterinary Medicine is our guest blogger this month. Dr. Lonna truly appreciates Kelsey’s contribution since her knowledge far exceeds Dr. Lonna’s. We intend to feature different species during the 2021 year. There may be other guest bloggers during this year. Enjoy Kelsey’s blog and photos. Dr. Lonna sure did. 

One of the first questions we always get about our llamas is, “Do they spit?” Llamas and alpacas can both spit and use it much like how horses bite and kick, cattle and goats head butt, and dogs and cats growl and hiss at each other. They use it to establish a pecking order in the herd, to keep others away from their food, as a defense mechanism, and to keep annoying males away. Occasionally people get stuck in the crossfire especially during feeding time. In rare cases, they will spit at people, but it is because you are doing something they don’t enjoy or they weren’t properly handled when young. The next question we usually get is, “Are these llamas or alpacas?” The easiest way to tell the difference is to look at their ears.  Llamas have long, curved, banana shaped ears whereas alpacas have short, straight, pointed ears. Llamas are also double the size at 250-450 pounds versus alpacas 120-200 pounds.

Llamas and alpacas are members of the camelid family and originated in the Andes Mountains of South America in Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. They were domesticated from their wild counterparts the guanaco and vicuna 4000 to 5000 years ago to be used as a beast of burden and for the fiber and meat. Today llamas and alpacas have a variety of uses.  Both can be used for their fiber which is softer, warmer, and finer than sheep’s wool. It is hypoallergenic so not as itchy as sheep’s wool. Llamas can produce 3-4 pounds and alpacas 6-8 pounds of fiber a year which can be spun into yarn and used to make socks, scarfs, gloves, sweaters, blankets, and rugs. They can be shown at the local fair and at regional and national shows throughout the United States. Classes include conformation which judges what the animal looks like. The conformation classes are divided into 5 fiber types for llamas and 16 fiber colors for alpacas. Fleece classes judge the animal’s fiber. Showmanship classes judge how you show the animal. Performance classes are divided into 3 classes, obstacle, public relations, and pack. Each of these classes has 10 obstacles which can include jumps, bridges, gates, water, backing, tunnels, petting, and many more. Some shows also have cart driving classes where the llama pulls a cart around and through obstacles. Well trained llamas and alpacas can be used as therapy animals and can be taken into hospitals and nursing homes to bring the patients and residents unlimited joy. Llamas can also be used as a guard animal for sheep, goats, and poultry. They will bond to their flock and protect them by alerting them to danger. They will protect from coyotes by either chasing them off or by stomping and biting them until dead. Lastly, llamas can be used as pack animals to carry hiking, camping, or hunting gear in and out of the wilderness. Llamas are very sure footed and have a low impact on the environment because of the soft pad on the bottom of their feet. Llamas can carry a third of their body weight which is about 80-100 pounds of packed items.

Llama and alpacas are relatively easy to care for and quite hardy. Llamas can live 20-25 years and alpacas live 15-20 years. They are a herd animal and do best when they are together as either a pair or more. They need a few pounds of good quality grass hay or fresh pasture, some grain, free choice minerals, and fresh water daily. Llamas and alpacas need a basic shelter to get them out of the rain, wind, snow, and hot sun. One great characteristic of llamas and alpacas is that they use a communal dung pile which allows for easy cleanup of the barn and pasture. Routine health care includes trimming their toes about 3-4 times per year, deworming them either monthly or seasonally depending on the expected parasite load, and giving them an annual CD/T vaccine or 7-way or 8-way vaccine. One of the biggest parasite concerns for llamas and alpacas is Meningeal worm or Parelaphostrongylus tenuis which can be readily found in the white tail deer population and rarely causes signs or clinical disease in deer but in llamas and alpacas it travels through the spinal cord causes stiffness, muscle weakness, circling, paralysis and eventual death. Treatment of this can be effective if it is started early in the course of the disease. It includes multiple dewormers, anti-inflammatories, vitamins and minerals, supportive care and physical therapy. Llamas and alpacas also need to be sheared yearly to harvest their fiber and keep them cool in the hot summer months to prevent heat stress. Signs of heat stress include staggering, reluctance to move, open mouth breathing, and high body temperature (Normal is 99.5 – 101.5°F). Shearing the middle or barrel of the animals is a great way to help prevent heat stress because it allows ventilation to their belly and armpits. On very hot days, fans, wading pools, and cool water sprayed on their legs and belly can also help to keep them cool and comfortable. Llamas and alpacas do love to sun bath and will lay out on their side just soaking up the sun. They look like they are dead. We have had people stop by thinking they were dead. Gestation is 11 ½ months for llamas. They will have a single baby called a cria. Llamas are induced ovulators, much like cats and rabbits, which means they will ovulate only after being bred. Llama crias are born weighing 20-30 pounds and alpaca crias weigh 14-18 pounds, and it takes about 3 years for them to reach full size. Males crias should be weaned and separated from females at 5-6 months of age to prevent unplanned babies. Most breeders geld males around 18 months. Between 2 and 3 years of age males will have their fighting teeth emerge. These are 6 sharp pointed canine like teeth. They use them to bite at other males and cause serious injuries. These should be trimmed.

Overall, llamas and alpacas are easy to take care of on a daily basis. They are a very versatile animal and bring great joy to both their owners and others who get to interact with them.

https://www.alpacainfo.com/academy/about-alpacas

http://www.shagbarkridge.com/about.html

https://secure.lamaregistry.com/

Is it That Time?

scan-752Growing up on a farm gave me insight to the circle of life at an early age. I saw crops planted and harvested each year to feed the hogs that were raised to supply food for the world and our immediate family. I was introduced to baby pigs as I helped my father give iron shots to prevent anemia and clip baby teeth in order to protect the mother sows udder. I was in charge of caring for the runts that were not able to fend for themselves in those large litters. My younger brother and myself would fix milk replacer for them and then transition them to creep feed and offer all the TLC a young pig could handle. I snuggled with pigs more than I care to admit during my younger years.   The ones that did not survive were carefully buried behind the barn and we rejoiced with each one that was able to move to the feeder pig facility.

I had a number of outdoor cats that would have litters every spring and those little kittens always seemed to get the “kitty cold” and would start doing poorly. My dad told me that if I wanted to help them, I could give them a shot of penicillin and see if they improved. Some responded immediately and others continued to decline and eventually passed away. Yet each of them were loved every moment of their lives by a young girl that learned there is a time to live and a time to die.

I had farm dogs that worked side by side caring for the livestock and others that were there as protectors and/or companions.   Attachment to each of them ran deep and as they aged, it became apparent that soon we would have to say good-bye.

I guess you could say that all of these experiences set me up to be a veterinarian. These experiences also made me more aware of the circle of life. I saw life and death often in nature and realized that there is no fear in death. I would see the peace in an animal’s passing and that there was no longer any pain or suffering. I would remember the joy that they had brought to my life, even if it was only for a short period of time. I would realize that my life was blessed because they had been special to me.

As I spend time with clients at Winterset Veterinary Center during the difficult moments surrounding euthanasia, I am reminded of the peace that comes in the end when our furry friends have taken their last breath. I can remember the joy they have brought to their forever family and know that these humans have been eternally blessed to have had this time with this special furry friend.

Please understand that as a veterinarian, these situations are some of the most difficult parts of my job. Yet, I would not choose to be anywhere else when that time comes for a pet-owner. I have been with them during the good times, and I would never abandoned them during these final moments when facing the most agonizing decision they have ever had to make for their special friend.

I find myself counseling often on “Is it that time?” Only you as a pet owner can know and decide if it is that time. People ask me, “But how will I know?” I tell them, “You will know.”   We were given a greater intelligence to be able to sense pain and suffering. Maybe by using our 5 senses we can relate to the struggles they endure during those final days. No more twinkle in their eyes, lots of moans and sighs, lack of interest in food and water, avoidance of affection and interaction, and/or unusual smells. Maybe it is the physical challenges they face such as incontinence, nerve deficits, joint diseases, heart disease, etc.   Sometimes these issues can present in combinations that make it apparent that successful return to a quality lifestyle will be next to impossible.   We all can hope that one morning we awake and find our furry friend peacefully passed in the night. Yet I must say, that gift is not granted nearly enough. If you have been given that gift in the past count yourself BLESSED!

I want to make certain my clients know that they will not be judged on what they decide is best for their furry friend. Only they can sense what has changed in their pet’s life that makes it apparent that this is the right time. I recall a day when I was asked to go outside to a pick-up truck to administer that final injection that would end the painful day to day struggles their furry friend had endured. I climbed up into the bed of the truck and sat in front of this very special dog that I had had the pleasure of caring for. No struggle was given as I placed my tourniquet and found that vein. I began injecting the solution and in her final moment of consciousness, she laid her head ever so peacefully in my lap. It was a moment I will never forget because I understood how much this final gesture had given her freedom from her pain and suffering.

Our furry friends deserve to have their final days be full of love and attention to their every need and comfort. The unconditional love they bestow on us daily is something that we will always hold most precious and dear. If you are coming to an end in the life of a furry friend, just always keep in mind that quality is more important than quantity. If each day is a struggle for your pet and they are having more difficult days than good days it may be time. If the sparkle has gone from their eyes, they no longer greet you at the end of the day, and they rarely seek you out due to the constant struggle they have to get around, it is most likely time. Know there is peace in their passing and joy in the remembrance of the blessings they have been in your lives.   My favorite saying when it comes to this topic is, “A furry friend’s only fault is they do not live long enough.” These words ring true for me and for all those who have had the pleasure of loving a pet.