The Alpaca Hacienda
Generally healthy, well-fed female alpacas give birth to strong and robust babies. But anyone who has raised livestock knows there are occasional problem births and babies that have a difficult time surviving shortly after birth. With birthing season upon us, it seemed only fitting to find a strong article on how to deal with problem births. There are few ecstasies in life greater than saving another living thing. Brad Smith, Karen Timm, and Pat Long were kind enough to allow the reprinting of ‘Birth to 24 Hours of Age’ from their excellent book Llama and Alpaca Neonatal Care.
Premature crias are frequently unable to stand unassisted and will likely need supplemental feeding. The first step is to help the cria feed on its own if possible. For some premature babies, if you help them to their feet and position them under the dam’s udder they may be able to nurse. After a couple of nursings the cria may be strong enough to stand and nurse unassisted and the problem is solved. If the cria is not able to nurse when held in position under the dam, supplemental feeding (discussed later) is appropriate.
Other medical problems
These crias are unable to nurse for other medical reasons, such as leg problems or infections. While sometimes amenable to on-farm treatment, input from your vet will be needed.
A significant percentage of cria nursing problems are behavioral. One of the common problems is the ‘wall baby.’ These crias have a difficult time figuring out that mom is the source of milk and will attempt to nurse various objects in dark corners. Frequently moving the mom and cria out of the stall and into a separate pasture will help. If it is not possible to move the cria outside due to weather, putting a bright light in the stall sometimes helps. The cria will instinctively attempt to nurse in the darkest corner, which, in the field or brightly lit stall, is under mom. Another problem group of crias are the ‘dummies’ (neonatal maladjustment syndrome). These crias had a particularly difficult birth and may have suffered brain damage due to hypoxia. These crias range from being somewhat disoriented and unsteady on their feet to those that are blind, unable to stand, and periodically have convulsions. While the severe problems obviously require professional assistance, some of the milder problems can be managed with good nursing care. This may include helping the cria to its feet, periodically rubbing the body and limbs to stimulate circulation, and supplemental feedings as needed. It is also important not to give up on these crias too early. Some of these crias are remarkably resilient and will fully recover within the first 3 to 6 days after birth.
If you notice milk coming from the cria’s nose after or as it nurses, be suspicious that the cria has a cleft palate. This is a developmental defect in which the normal separation between the mouth and nose is incomplete. As a result, when the cria nurses, some of the milk gets into the nose and drains out. As with many of the problems discussed in this section, cleft palates can vary dramatically in their severity. In an extreme case the mouth and nose are connected for most of their length. This cria probably will be unable to nurse at all since it cannot create a vacuum within its mouth to suck milk from the udder. In mild cleft palate, the only indication of a problem may be a few drops of milk coming from the nose. This is another problem to discuss with your veterinarian.
There are two reasons that warming the cria up is important. The most obvious is that the cold cria will not move around and will not be aggressively attempting to nurse. The second reason is that the milk tends to sit in the stomach and is poorly digested in chilled crias. In the extreme case the milk begins to curdle and ferment, resulting in other problems. The bottom line: Warm the cria up before starting supplemental feeding.
Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands. Indications of mastitis may include enlargement, tenderness, and excessive warmth of the affected glands. The infected udder of the dam may be very tender and she may refuse to let the cria nurse.
This is a surprisingly common problem and has several ramifications. If the baby is premature, the dam’s mammary glands may not have had sufficient time to develop and are not ready to produce milk. If the baby receives supplemental feedings and the dam’s mammary glands are milked out twice a day, most moms will start lactating adequately within a couple of days after birth. For these crias the challenges are getting sufficient colostrum during the first 24 hours of life (discussed later in this chapter), encouraging the cria to attempt to nurse, and keeping mom milked out.
The issues for dams that had a full-term pregnancy are somewhat different. Some of these animals are just slow starting their lactation, and supplementation of the cria for a couple of days may be all that is needed. However, pay very close attention to the female that never develops an adequate udder. Milk production in other species is a highly heritable trait, and there are strong indications that there are some lines of lamas that do not have the genetic potential to be good milkers. Again, there is a spectrum of conditions, ranging from the dam that produces a marginally adequate volume of milk to the dam that produces no milk (agalactia). As breeding and culling decisions are made, milk production is an important consideration.
Some first-time moms don’t instinctively know how to stand and let the cria nurse. These moms may move away or kick at the cria when it attempts to nurse. One trick that works well is to catch the dam and manually milk out a few ounces of milk. Sometimes the single milking is all that it takes to initiate normal behavior in the dam. If the mom is still not willing to stand and let the cria nurse after being partially milked or is particularly nervous, sedation may be appropriate. While this usually needs to be done only once, it is suggested that you first discuss the procedure with your vet.
This is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the tissue around the mammary glands. If the dam has udder edema, the mammary glands may feel very swollen and firm. In some cases the swelling is so severe that the teats become partially enveloped by the tissue and may appear unusually small. If the glands are severely swollen, it may not be possible for the cria to grab the teat and suckle.
Sometimes the cria and dam don’t bond. In these situations the cria does not know who its mom is and/or the dam fails to recognize the cria as its own. Indications of this problem would be a cria that wanders off from mom and attempts to nurse from other dams. Another indication would be the mother that does not pay appropriate attention to its cria. One solution is to move mom and baby into a relatively small box stall and leave them alone (other than watching) for a couple of hours. If this does not work, another approach is to rub the placenta over the cria. Sometimes the smell helps the mom identify the cria as its own. A final trick reported by some owners as effective is to put a couple of drops of perfume or cologne on the dam’s nose and on the baby. The theory is that the cria/dam bonding is somewhat smell-based, and that it is not the specific ‘natural' smell of the cria but the ‘sameness’ of the smells (i.e., the cologne on the dam’s nose and cria) that helps them recognize each other.
If available, colostrum from a llama or an alpaca is by far the best choice, since it contains antibodies against the common pathogens found in the cria’s environment and will provide the best passive immunity. The downside to using llama or alpaca colostrum is that it can be difficult to obtain. If the mom is available, the best option is to milk the animal. With care and some patience it is usually possible to collect 4 to 6 ounces of colostrum from a llama and 3 to 5 ounces from an alpaca. For llamas, the easiest spot to milk the mom is frequently in a chute, while for alpacas, restraint by one or two people is usually the most successful. If the dam has died or has no (minimal) colostrum, the options are more limited. Some owners have advocated developing on-farm colostrum banks. To accomplish this, some colostrum is collected from most or all females and frozen. The disadvantage to this approach is that it decreases the colostrum for their own crias and requires additional restraint and handling during the first couple of hours following delivery. If you decide to collect and save colostrum, it should be frozen and saved in small volumes. One approach that some owners have used successfully is to pour the colostrum into an ice tray and then freeze the container. Once frozen the cubes are transferred into a sealed plastic bag and kept frozen until needed. Llama and alpaca colostrum can be used interchangeably in the llama and alpaca with no adverse effects.
If lama colostrum is unavailable, cow, goat, or sheep colostrum is probably the next best choice. Although colostrum from these sources will not have antibodies against pathogens that are unique to the llama and alpaca, many of the organisms affecting the ruminants and the camelids are the same, and this colostrum will provide some protective immunity.One concern that may preclude using cow, goat, or sheep colostrum in the llama and alpaca is the possibility of the cria contracting Johne’s disease (Mycobacterium paratuberculosis) from infected milk. In the cow it has been clearly established that calves are most susceptible to contracting this bacterial disease during the first few weeks of life. Since the disease is relatively common in dairy cattle from some regions, the concern has been that the cria might contract the disease by drinking infected colostrum and then infect the rest of the herd. To date there have been no established cases of crias contracting the disease from milk. It is, however, a potential concern and one that should be carefully discussed with your vet.
The other consideration is the balance between the cria potentially getting the disease from drinking infected colostrum versus the risk of dying due to insufficient passive protection from the colostrum. Cow colostrum is very thick, has a distinct yellowish appearance, and is not considered acceptable by most people for their own consumption. As a result, dairies do not routinely sell milk collected for the first couple of days after birth and instead feed it to their calves. If you are going to feed cow colostrum, you will need to plan ahead and have a store on hand. The best way to get cow colostrum is to contact a local Grade A dairy and ask them to save you a gallon or so of colostrum from one of their cows. It is important, however, that you let the dairy know that you want milk from the very first milking after the cow has delivered. This milk will have the highest IgG concentration and is the milk you want to use.One approach that works well is to take the colostrum home and freeze it in 500 or 1000 ml wide-mouthed, polyethylene screw-top containers.
We don’t know how long colostrum can be kept without losing its effectiveness. If the colostrum is not thawed, however, it should be good for at least a year and probably longer. The best storage location is a non-frost-free freezer if one is available. Frost-free freezers periodically warm up slightly to prevent frost buildup. Colostrum in frost-free freezers will probably not keep quite as well as in a non-frost-free freezer.
There are a variety of freeze-dried synthetic cow colostrums. The advantage to these products is that they can be easily purchased from most feed stores and are available when needed. The effectiveness of these products in the llama and alpaca has not been evaluated, and the potential for a cria getting Johne’s disease from this source is unknown.
Another approach that has been advocated by some owners and veterinarians is to feed lama plasma during this period. The concept is that the cria can absorb IgG from the plasma through its intestines and the potential for the cria getting Johne’s disease is minimized. There are two issues that should be considered before feeding plasma. The first is the limited volume of the cria’s stomach. While the plasma is a good source of IgG, it is not a particularly good source of nutrition, and whatever volume of plasma is given is that much less volume of colostrum for the cria. The second consideration is the concentration of IgG in the plasma. On a volume-for-volume basis, colostrum has at least a 5- to 10-fold higher concentration of immunoglobulins than plasma. As a result, while the cria will receive some antibodies from plasma, the concentration will be lower than if it received an equal volume of colostrum.
If you are providing 100% of the cria’s nutritional needs, plan on feeding 10 to 12% of the cria’s body weight per day divided into 5 to 7 feedings. For example:
For the first 24 hours after birth, plan on feeding just colostrum. If supplemental feeding is still needed after this time, other sources of milk can be used. Thaw colostrum by letting it sit at room temperature or in a container of warm (not hot) water. Of even greater importance, don’t put the milk in a microwave to defrost it. Hot water and the microwave can get the colostrum too hot and destroy the antibodies. Any colostrum that has been thawed but not used should be discarded, not refrozen.The volume of colostrum suggested in the last section (10 to 12% of body weight) is based on the cria not getting anything from mom. If the cria is nursing and getting some colostrum, you will need to adjust the volume of supplemental colostrum. In this first 24 hours work to get an adequate volume of colostrum into the cria so that passive transfer of IgG occurs and energy is provided.
How do I get the colostrum into the cria?
There are three ways a cria can get colostrum: 1) nursing from the dam, 2) suckling from a bottle, and 3) by tube feeding. If the dam has milk and the cria is sufficiently strong, nursing from the dam is clearly the best method. If nursing from mom is not an option, then the choice becomes bottle or tube feeding. Tube feeding has the advantage of being rapid and is the only choice in crias that are too weak to suckle. Under most circumstances, however, bottle feeding is the better choice of the two. When the cria suckles from the dam or from a bottle, the milk passes down the esophagus, bypasses the first two compartments of the stomach, and goes into the third compartment, the acid-containing portion. This bypass occurs because as the cria suckles, a muscular fold forms a tube (gastric groove) from the esophagus directly to the third compartment. In contrast, when a cria is tube-fed, most of the milk goes into the first two compartments and then moves slowly into the third compartment. Although crias can be successfully tube-fed, if you have the option, most crias will do better being fed from a bottle.
If you have ever raised other livestock, you will probably be struck at how comparatively difficult it is to get a cria started on a bottle. With a little care and persistence, it is usually possible to get the cria started on a bottle after a few tries. There are several schools of thought as to the choice of bottles and nipples. A lamb’s nipple works reasonably well if the hole is not too large. The Pritchard flutter valve nipple¨ also works well. Nipples can be put on either a pop bottle or a soft polyethylene bottle that allows milk to be squeezed out. One way to hold the cria is to kneel and straddle the cushed cria, then let the cria back into you as you slip the bottle into its mouth. This approach allows you to keep one hand on the bottle and the other on the cria’s head.
If the cria is too weak to take a bottle, tube feeding is appropriate. The recommended tube should have a smooth end and can be purchased from your veterinarian. Before tube feeding an animal, hold the tube against the cria’s side and estimate the distance between the corner of the animal’s mouth and the back of the shoulder (some people measure to the back of the ribs, which is the level of the stomach). Mark the tube to indicate this distance. This is the approximate distance you want to pass the tube. The cria is cushed and the head is held in a normal position, not with the nose up in the air. Pass the lubricated tube slowly into the animal’s mouth and along the roof of the mouth. If the cria will suck on the tube before it is passed, it may help close the gastric groove and more of the milk will pass directly into the third compartment. As the tube reaches the back of the throat you may feel some resistance. Apply gentle pressure to the tube and wait for the animal to swallow. Don’t force the tube. The tube should then pass easily down the throat to your mark.
Put a funnel or dosing syringe onto the tube and let the colostrum flow into the cria by gravity flow. When removing the tube, keep your finger over the end of the tube so nothing spills and chokes the cria. Note: If a significant amount of fluid or gas comes up the tube, don’t give colostrum immediately. Wait 2 to 3 hours and try again, or get veterinary help. This can be an indication that the cria is not digesting well. If there is excessive distension of the abdomen, reevaluate tube feeding. This cria may also need veterinary care. It is very important to be positive that the tube is not in the lungs. Putting milk into the lungs is a virtually guaranteed way to start a nasty (and frequently fatal) case of pneumonia. Practical ways to check placement of the tube include:
Monitor the cria. The cria will need to be fed on a regular basis and watched carefully. With most babies, if they can get through the first couple of days of life in good shape they will usually be fine. Finally, plan on measuring IgG concentrations at about 36 hours.
After the cria is 24 hours old, the intestines are no longer permeable to antibodies and milking problems shift from IgG absorption to appropriate weight gain.
Brad Smith, Karen Timm, and Pat Long, ‘Birth to 24 Hours of Age’ Llama and Alpaca Neonatal Care (Clay Press, 1997). - Ed.