Naturally, one of the best things about my job is dealing with the newborn offspring of my four-legged patients. Although I don’t spend all day playing with the foals and calves and lambs, as some people think I do, I do make sure that when there is a newborn on the farm, I at least get to scratch it on the head (if the mother allows!).
And while I’ve said before that there’s really nothing better in this world than a lamb, I will challenge my own statement with this: baby llamas and alpacas (called crias) are a close runner-up.
Camelids (the term encompassing llamas and alpacas), are strange, fascinating creatures. Originating from South America, llamas have been used as pack animals, and both llamas and alpacas are known for their dense fiber, although alpacas are known to have far finer, softer fiber than llamas. Llamas were extremely popular about twenty years ago in this country until the market became saturated and their prices dropped. Currently, alpacas are the hot commodity, although the struggling economy over the past few years has caused some anguish in this industry as well. Having said this, the Maryland/Pennsylvania region is still rife with these creatures and we see them a lot in practice.
The gestational period for an alpaca or llama is roughly eleven months, similar to a horse, and when born, crias looks like Muppets. I’m serious. This is why I love them so.
Seriously, when born, these creatures have ridiculously long, thin legs, huge eyes, big ears, and tiny noses. I do believe those are all the ingredients for some serious cuteness. To top it all off, they make a high-pitched humming noise. It’s great.
So, being a vet, it comes to mind that I am called when things actually go wrong with these animals. Here’s what normally goes wrong:
- Crias sometimes don’t enter the world in the right order, which is: both front feet, followed by a nose. With such long legs, many times things get tangled up and out comes a hind leg or only one front leg. Sometimes, this requires intervention to get things untangled.
- Occasionally, crias don’t nurse right after they are born; the mother won’t allow it to nurse, or the mother has poor quality milk. If this happens, the cria doesn’t ingest important antibodies that are necessary for a robust immune system. This sometimes means the cria will require a plasma transfusion.
- Sometimes, the cria is small and weak. These little guys have virtually no body fat, and if they aren’t fast to get up and nurse, they quickly become cold. A cold, weak cria is a dead cria unless someone intervenes.
Not many vets actually know what to do with an alpaca or a cria. Camelids are still a very unknown species in veterinary medicine — there are no FDA-approved drugs for these creatures, and vet schools usually don’t offer many courses on them.
My interest in camelids began senior year of vet school when I had a few alpacas as patients. I was so intrigued by them that I learned as much as I could and was lucky enough to get a job that had alpaca clients. Since then, I’ve learned many more alpaca care tips from my boss and from alpaca owners themselves. I’ve also learned many things from plain, old experience:
- Yes, alpacas and llamas spit. The spit stinks. If you get the spit in your hair, you will stink until your next shower.
- Alpacas and llamas also kick. It hurts.
- When you get kicked and spit on all in one day, it’s a bad day.
- When you deliver a cria successfully and watch it stand for the first time and nurse correctly, it’s a really, really good day. And sometimes you get to help name the cria (a very special honor).
- Number 4 always trumps numbers 1, 2, and 3. No matter what.
Dr. Anna O’Brien