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I'm thinking of adopting...a llama or alpaca

03 December 2019
I'm thinking of adopting...a llama or alpaca

Every year, thousands of animals of all shapes, sizes, and ages come into SPCA centres around the country, all looking for a forever home. It's important that the pet you choose to adopt is the right pet for your lifestyle. In this article, we speak to passionate llama and alpaca expert, Dr Stephen Mulholland from the Camelid Health Trust, about adopting one of these adorable animals.

Stephen lives outside of Wellington in Tawa on his 10ha farm with more than 50 alpacas and llamas. His experience of bredding, raising and caring for camelids - a group that includes llamas and alpacas, as well as camels - spans more than 15 years. We are grateful to him for sharing his knowledge and passion for these unique animals.

The care, feeding and behaviour of llamas and alpacas is very similiar, so anywhere in this article where we say 'alpaca', the same advice applies to llamas too.

First off, what's the difference between a llama and an alpaca?

"Llamas usually (but not always) have beautiful curving banana shaped ears. Alpacas, on the other hand, usually (but not always!) have straight ears. When in doubt, think ‘banana-llama’, and you’ll likely be right!

"Llamas also tend to be larger, although the biggest alpacas will be bigger than the smallest llamas. At the most there are about 30,000 alpacas in New Zealand."

How many should I adopt?

"Camelids need to be in groups of at least two, according to MPI’s Code of Welfare for Llamas and Alpacas, but they are happier in groups. Alpaca are herd animals; they cannot live alone. A non-camelid companion (sheep, goat, horse) is not sufficient, they must have another llama or alpaca for company. While two is the minimum, three is better.

"A better alternative is the scenario with three animals, such as two females, and a male. The females can be kept in one paddock, with the male is kept in a separate paddock within sight of the girls.

"Girls can happily live together in the same paddock, as can boys. But if they are going to be mixed, the boys must be castrated first. Many people new to alpaca or llama ownership elect to go for the smallest possible herd size, usually one male and one female. This is not recommended, as the danger in this cohabitation arrangement arises from the male, who may start to display dangerous patterns of behaviour, such as over-mating the female, mating a female during birth (this has been repeatedly observed), mating females when they are too young, or becoming aggressive.

"If possible, larger groups (five or more) tend to result in happier, calmer animals as they prefer the safety of numbers. Larger groups also give them more chances to make friends, and stay away from the ones they don’t like. Unfamiliar mobs eventually integrate, but they might hang out on their own for quite a long time."

How should I set up their home?

"Alpaca generally respect fences, and standard sheep fencing is usually sufficient. Electric fences are not recommended, as an alpaca fleece can be a good insulator (they don’t feel the shocks unless they touch the tape with their nose) and alpaca occasionally get tangled in electric tape, with potentially tragic consequences.

"You must have a pen or yard where the alpaca can be confined, as handling facilities are vital when it comes to shearing, injections, medical treatment, etc. Regularly feeding the alpaca in the yards will get them used to the area."

How do I monitor their health?

"Alpaca are notoriously stoic – they hide their illnesses very well. Regularly observe your animals, and learn what is normal for them. Look out for any sudden changes such as; a change in dominance (the lead animal is suddenly being picked on), laggards (animals that used to arrive first, now lagging far behind), signs of discomfort (moaning or teeth grinding), animals unwilling to stand, or significant weight loss. There may be a few false alarms as you get to know your pets, but regular careful observation is the best way to detect a problem early on. Keep record of your observations in your farm journal, which will be helpful if your animal gets sick."

How long do they live?

"Alpacas and llamas are considered “aged” when they hit 12 years old but they can be expected to live into their twenties with a bit of luck, care, and good management. A 15 to 20-year life span is more typical currently in New Zealand."

What should I feed them?

"For most alpacas in New Zealand, grass is sufficient for all their dietary needs. Good quality meadow hay should be fed out when feed is short (winter), as they need long fibres in their diet to promote good digestion. Alpaca “nuts” and other processed food should only be used sparingly. Avoid grain and maize-based feeds as it can result in dangerous digestive upset.

"When offering supplements, it is important that you ensure the older animals get what they need without socially excluding them. If your herd size is small enough, separating animals and feeding each their own quantity works well."

How do I care for them on a day-to-day basis?

"Alpaca are relatively easy to keep, but they do require some maintenance. They should be shorn once per year, in the late Spring or early Summer, and they require a once yearly vaccinations and Vit D injections - ask your vet for more information about this. Drench (or 'wormer') should be given only when required.

"Their toenails can grow too long, especially on soft ground in winter, but they can be easily trimmed when the animal is restrained for shearing. If they need to be trimmed more often, this can be done with a small pair of hand-snips, but be careful to avoid the quick at the tip of the toe.

"The Body Condition Score (BCS) is one of the best tools for tracking the health of an alpaca. Long fibre can easily conceal a dangerously thin alpaca. An alpaca much thinner than its mates may be have worms (intestinal parasites). All alpacas should have their BCS measured monthly, and the results recorded. On lush NZ pasture, many alpaca are obese."

I've heard alpacas can get facial eczema - what is that?

"Facial Eczema is a risk everywhere on the North Island, and it is caused by toxins in fungal spores. The toxin causes liver damage which can kill an alpaca. The fungus grows on dead leaf litter during warm, humid weather.

"To stop spores, avoid topping pasture, and consider preventative measures such as spraying paddocks with fungicide before peak-danger periods, or feeding out zinc-containing nuts during danger periods."

Any other 'nasties' I need to know about?

"Be especially wary of poisonous plants, some of which can be deadly for alpacas if ingested. Two native plants, tutu (Coriaria arborea) and ngaio (Myoporum laetum), are known dangers. Many garden plants including oleander, rhododendron and azalea, are also very poisonous. If you are not sure, treat any garden or ornamental plant as poisonous."

Your final words of wisdom?

"Don't let an elderly animal suffer. Caring for older animals does mean that you will have to occasionally sacrifice your own convenience for their welfare, and some alpacas will require more of your time than others. Keep an extra-sharp eye on the ‘oldies’, and knowing when and how to intervene to ensure that their quality of life is maintained is important – and rewarding."

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