What is an alpaca (Vicugna pacos, formerly Lama pacos)? Is it a commercial fleece producer, a livestock guardian, a backyard pet or the future producer of alpaca carpaccio? The alpaca industry started in the Sydney, Coast and Highland region with the first three South American imports in 1989. There are currently estimates of up to 150,000 alpacas to be found in all areas of Australia, but mainly in NSW and Victoria. The number of landowners with alpacas is increasing and there is a good chance that a veterinarian in the Local Land Services will be called to a property to investigate alpaca related problems. This presentation highlights some of the special characteristics of this species that should be considered when examining an animal or giving advice on treatment or management.
Alpacas are different in many ways from traditional livestock industries. The terminology used with this species is based on both its origin (South America) and aspects of its physiology and behaviour. A few important terms to know are listed.
|Macho||Mature male animal of breeding age|
|Hembra||Mature female animal of breeding age|
|Tui||Weaned animal that hasn’t reached breeding age – equivalent to a ‘yearling’.|
|Huacaya||Alpaca with soft pillow-like fiber which grows perpendicular to their body|
|Suri||Alpaca with long lustrous curls of fiber which grow parallel to the body|
|Mobile mating||Female alpacas taken to property where the male is kept for breeding and then returned to home property|
|Drive-by mating||Male stud alpaca taken to properties to breed females (could be more than one male alpaca in the vehicle to be taken and retrieved from more than one property)|
|Orgling||The noise a male makes prior to and during breeding. Stimulates ovulation in the female.|
|Cush (Kush)||Sitting position with legs tucked underneath that is both a resting position and also the female's mating position|
|Pronking||Running and bouncing similar to a Springbok – normally seen around dusk in mostly young animals|
|Berserk alpaca syndrome (aberrant behaviour syndrome)||Hand raised alpacas that are aggressive towards people – result of imprinting. Can cause serious injury (and fatalities).|
Alpacas belong to the family of camelids which include llamas, guanacos and vicunas. They are pseudoruminants as there are three forestomachs (C1-C3) which are not analogous to the compartments in the ruminant.
Approximately 80% of the forestomach is C1 which lies on the left hand side; C2 is connected to C1 by a large opening and makes up 6% of the forestomach. Glandular saccules line the ventral surface of C1 and C2 and absorb nutrients, add mucus, glycoprotein and urea for use by the microbes and possibly secrete bicarbonate to buffer the contents (pH ranges from 6-7).
C3 is a long tube that runs alongside C1 on the right hand side of the abdominal cavity. The last section of C3 contains gastric glands and has a pH of 2-3. Solutes and water are absorbed.
The main differences between the alpaca and ruminant gastro-intestinal tract (and associated implications for treatment and management) are listed in the table below.
|Alpaca||Ruminant||Implication for alpaca|
|Split upper lip with independent movement||Dental plate||Increases ability to select individual plants|
|Tongue rarely comes out of the mouth||Tongue used to grasp pasture||Cannot lick themselves, their young or other objects such as nutritional blocks. However, they may chew the blocks if they are palatable. Supplements can be added to feed or applied directly.|
|Continual fermentation in forestomach due to constant motility.
Rapidly dividing populations of microbes in C2.
|Layering of feed in the rumen to allow greater exposure of feed to microbes||Faster liquid flow through C1 (constant removal of microbial protein, vitamins and minerals)|
|Particulate passage time 63 hours||Particulate passage time (sheep) 41 hours||Better utilisation of poor quality forage|
|Gas produced by microbes in C1 – belching 3-4 times per motility cycle.||Less susceptible to gas accumulation and bloat.|
|Large opening between C1 and C2||Restricted opening between reticulum and rumen||Intraruminal pellets are moved rapidly through the forestomach reducing effectiveness.|
|Reduced kidney urea excretion, recycling of urea through saliva and absorption through C1 wall||Lower maintenance protein (10-12%) required for rumenal activity compared to ruminants (14%)|
|Most digestion occurs in C1-C3||Some digestion in large intestine||Reduced risk of starch fermentation and hind gut acidosis. Faecal material is pelleted.|
Alpaca stocking rates.
|Growth status||Alpaca liveweight|
|35 kg = DSE||55 kg = DSE||65 kg = DSE|
|Growth: 50 gms/day||1.1||1.5||1.7|
|Growth: 100 gms/day||1.2||1.7||2.0|
|Growth: 150 gms/day||1.4||2.0||2.2|
The reproductive physiology of alpacas differs from ruminants and is not well understood. Hembras are induced ovulators. They are sexually receptive most of the time despite the stage of development of follicles in the ovary. The female adopts the ‘cush’ position for mating. Matings last approximately 20 minutes with multiple ejaculations by the macho (each ejaculate of low volume, low sperm, highly viscous semen).
Length of gestation is approximately 11.5 months (315 – 370 days). Single births are the norm – live twins are rare.
Hembra can be bred at 12 months but 15 months or older is preferable with a minimum liveweight of 45kg. Males reach puberty between 1 – 3 years. The penis is attached to the prepuce and does not detach properly until the male is closer to 3 years of age. Castration ideally should be conducted when the male is older than 9 months as skeletal development is dependent on the presence of sex hormones. The method of castration is similar to that performed on a dog or horse. Cryptorchidism can occur.
Despite their ‘cute’ appearance, alpacas have a strong hierarchical structure that can result in behavioural problems such as aggression, especially in male animals (both entire and wethers). Male alpacas may require removal of their fighting teeth.
A syndrome described in both alpacas and llamas is the ‘berserk’ or aberrant behaviour syndrome. This syndrome can occur in hand reared animals that are not exposed to the normal hierarchy structure or the discipline that occurs in the dynamics of a herd. The animal perceives humans as another alpaca and as they mature, can show extreme aggression toward people.
Alpacas, when upset, can spit but usually this mainly occurs when a non-receptive female is warning an amorous male to keep their distance.
Alpacas are not a nomadic species but prefer to remain within a prescribed range. An alpaca territory is marked by a communal manure pile. In a paddock or yard, the animals will select one area for defecation.
Alpacas are fairly stoic when it comes to illnesses. They may not show indications of ill health until the disease or condition has progressed to a serious stage.
Alpacas are prone to anaemia from a number of causes, including stress related gastric ulceration (occurring in lone animals separated from the herd), barber’s pole (lower parasite burdens compared to sheep can result in clinical signs – macrocyclic lactones resistance has been reported), chronic renal disease and nutritional deficiencies. In New Zealand anaemia has been associated with facial eczema and, in 2103, the first report of Mycoplasma haemolamae, a cause of anaemia overseas, was found in a homebred animal.1
The red blood cell of an alpaca is small, thin and elliptical with a fairly rapid turnover compared to other ruminants (60days compared to 120days). Normal haematocrit is 29-32% but blood cell count can vary depending on the method used – automatic counters may under count due to the red blood cell shape.
Vitamin D deficiency can occur, especially in young alpacas during the winter months, resulting in limb deformities, lameness, poor growth rates and illthrift. Affected animals may also be anaemic. Supplementation is required for young animals, pregnant and lactating adults, especially those with dark fleece, during winter time in the Southern part of the State.
Hepatic lipidosis is almost always fatal in alpacas even though the cause of this condition is not clear but recent significant loss of appetite or weight loss is commonly found in the history. Pregnancy and lactation increasing energy demands can increase predisposition to the condition. Progression from first clinical signs to death can be as short as 24 hours.
Lice infestations on alpacas are due to the biting louse, Bovicola breviceps, which was introduced into Australia on imported animals in the mid 1990’s. The sucking louse, Microthoracius spp, has not been introduced as injectable paraciticides are part of the pre-entry protocol. Unfortunately pour-on products were not.
Alpacas have food pads and are not susceptible to ‘foot rot’ but they can get a condition called infectious pododermatitis.
This short talk is only intended to bring a few of the interesting aspects of the alpaca breed to the notice of Local land Services Officers. If asked advice on alpacas, it may be prudent to refer to a reference such as those listed below before providing an answer.
Hofffman E. The Complete Alpaca Book. Bonny Doon Press, California. 2nd edition, 2006.
Fowler M. Medicine and Surgery of Camelids. Wiley Blackwell. 3rd edition, 2010.