Health & Husbandry
A comprehensive guide to Alpaca heath is available to all AANZ members on joining our Association.
Alpacas are relatively stoic creatures and are not as prone to disease as other farmed livestock species. But like any animal, there are times when health problems may arise. By employing the simple husbandry tasks listed below, you can ensure health problems on your farm are a rare event.
The first thing to remember is that prevention is always better than cure. Make sure you include routine treatments such as vaccination, drenching and vitamin injections (members - treatments paddock card available) in your farm practice. Second, early detection of a problem is a key part of ensuring a fast and successful recovery, particularly given that alpacas are very good at hiding health problems. The quicker you are able to detect an animal is unwell and seek treatment, the faster the animal will recover.
For early detection, perhaps one of the easiest (and most enjoyable) husbandry tasks you can do is to become familiar with your individual animals. By getting to know their “normal” behaviour, you will very quickly recognise when their behaviour changes. Subtle changes such as hanging back in the herd, being slow to move, or sitting down often and for long periods of time, may indicate potential health problems. In the more obvious instance when an animal is unable to stand, it is recommended that a veterinarian be contacted immediately – as this could indicate a more serious health problem is present.
The second thing you should do on a regular basis is to body score your animals. This is a good way of finding out if your animal is losing condition. Fully fleeced animals make a visual assessment on their condition impossible, so it is recommended that you conduct these checks regularly. This is a ‘hands-on’ job and involves feeling along the spine of the animal – this is the best way to check the nutritional status of an alpaca (members - body score paddock available)
There are a few specific alpaca diseases that are worth mentioning and keeping in mind when doing your regular husbandry checks:
RICKETS (HYPOVITAMINOSIS D)
Young growing alpacas (less than 2 years of age) and pregnant/lactating females are at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. This is most commonly seen in winter because of the lack of sunshine hours. Animals with full fleeces are also at higher risk. Low levels of Vitamin D cause the alpaca’s calcium to phosphate ratio to become abnormal, this in turn affects bone growth and development. Osteomalacia is the equivalent condition in adult alpacas and results in demineralization of the long bones. Rickets and osteomalacia are painful conditions. Clinical signs include a hunched back posture, discomfort in moving and a splay-legged gait. Affected animals may lag behind the rest of the flock, walk slowly and appear to be ‘leaning backwards’ when walking. Severely affected animals may spend most of their time in the kush position. Rickets can be treated by Vitamin D injections and phosphorous supplements/injections may also help. However, excessive amounts of Vitamin D can be toxic. It is strongly recommended that you consult your vet if you suspect rickets.
Bovine tuberculosis is a serious issue in New Zealand, and all cattle and deer are subject to mandatory disease control programmes. Camelids have been shown to be infected with tuberculosis, although transmission between camelids has not been demonstrated. The Alpaca Association has established a programme for testing and reporting camelid herd tuberculosis status. The programme is voluntary, but all alpaca owners are recommended to take part.
Like other grazing livestock, alpacas are susceptible to being poisoned by certain plants. New alpaca owners should become familiar with plants that may poison their livestock and take measures to protect the animals if such plants are found. Many garden plants are toxic if eaten by livestock. If you suspect your animals may have ingested a poisonous plant, it is strongly recommended that you call your vet immediately, especially if the animal is showing clinical signs. Poisonous plants to be aware of include the following:
Nightshade, lilies, solanums, foxglove, hemlock, rhododendrons, azaleas, inkweed, oleander, willow-weed, tutu (toot), ragwort, ngaio, datura, Jerusalem cherry, mallow, buttercup, yew, laurel, macrocarpa, irises, bracken fern, daffodils and hellebores.
Like many livestock alpaca are susceptible to facial eczema. It is caused by a mycotoxin found in pasture. Pithomyces chartarum is a fungus commonly found in many New Zealand pastures; it produces spores that contain the toxic chemical sporidesmin. Ingestion of sporidesmin causes liver damage. Destruction of liver tissue means that the liver can no longer break down normal metabolic/digestive toxins found in the blood stream. As a result, these toxins then build-up to high levels in the blood. Many of these compounds react with sunlight and cause skin damage when passing through blood vessels in the skin.
Clinical signs include skin irritation, crusting and oozing (particularly ears and nose), decreased growth rates, ill thrift and abortion. However, the animal will show no signs of disease and due to the stoic natures of alpacas, sudden death may be the first indication of illness. The disease can be confirmed by a blood test or liver biopsy. Unfortunately the liver damage is permanent, so prevention is of vital importance.
The distribution of the fungus is restricted to warmer areas of the country and is a problem mainly during summer and autumn. Camelid owners living in facial eczema affected areas should arrange for regular pasture spore counts either through their vet or equipment can be purchased for owners to do this themselves. The disease can be controlled by supplementary feeding of zinc and/or spraying the pasture with fungicides and grazing management.
Perrenial ryegrass is a popular pasture grass in New Zealand. Most ryegrasses have been infected with the endophyte fungus Acremonium lolii. This fungus provides protection from attack by the Argentine Stem Weevil which can destroy pasture. Unfortunately, the endophyte also produces mycotoxins (known as lolitrems) which can cause ryegrass staggers when ingested by a susceptible alpaca. The toxin attacks the brain and central nervous system. Initial signs are a head/neck tremor. If no action is taken, this will progress to an unstable gait (ataxia), collapse and possible death from misadventure. Susceptibility appears to be genetic; therefore some animals are more susceptible than others.
Ryegrass staggers is mainly seen in summer and autumn. However, hay cut from affected pastures may remain toxic and animals can show signs at any time of the year if fed on this hay. Fortunately the condition is reversible if treated at an early stage. At the first sign of illness, the animal must be removed from the affected pasture immediately. The animal should be fed on lucerne or good quality hay (not made from ryegrass pasture) and provided with water. Treatments (Mycosorb, Biomass) are available that will bind to the toxins and may help prevent their absorption. The animal will usually recover within a few weeks.
Alpacas are susceptible to many internal parasites affecting sheep and cattle in New Zealand. They also have some specific worm species of their own (e.g. Camylid strongylus). Different worm species may affect alpacas in different regions of New Zealand e.g. Haemonchus contortus (Barber’s Pole worm) is more of a problem in the North Island and Nematodirus worm species in the South. Intestinal parasites can be life-threatening when heavy worm burdens are present. Haemonchosis can cause severe anaemia, ill-thrift and death.
While drenching is important for routine management, worm resistance to drenches is becoming more common in New Zealand. It is also vitally important to ensure that the animals are given the correct dose of drench. Under-dosing will encourage worm resistance.
Alpacas are infested by consuming worm larvae present on pasture. As both worm eggs and larvae are found on pasture, grazing management is a useful management tool and can hugely reduce the population of worm larvae on the pasture. Particularly if a non-target species (e.g. horse) is available to ‘mop-up’ the pasture before being grazed by alpacas.
Faecal worm egg counting can also be undertaken in order to estimate the worm burden animals may be carrying. This will enable ‘targeted’ drenching. Removing faeces from the pasture can also be used to reduce the risk of worms. A paddock card relating to parasites and faecal egg counting will shortly be available.