Dystocia in Llamas and Alpacas
By Dr. David Anderson, Ohio State

Client Information Sheet - Jodi Houser, Veterinary Student - David E Anderson, DVM, MS

What is dystocia?

  • Dystocia is defined as "difficult birth" and can have numerous causes, some of which are related to the dam and some that are related to the fetus.

+ - What is the normal gestation and birthing behavior?

  • Llamas and alpacas have an average gestation length of 345 days but it could be normal for them to give birth up to a month later and have a healthy cria.
  • Over 90% of births occur during the mid-morning hours; this is believed to occur in order to provide the cria with the most environmental warmth and ability to get dry. Interestingly, cria's born in the OSU teaching herd have run about 50% early am, 50% late afternoon!
  • There are three distinct stages of labor but these can sometimes overlap
  • dystocia can be observed within either of the first two stages:
  • Stage I begins when the uterus starts to contract and the cervix dilates to the same width as the vagina; at this point the fetus is forced into the pelvic inlet and the membrane ruptures (this can last up to 24 hours)
  • Stage II begins when the membrane ruptures and ends with the birth of a fetus (this usually lasts from 30 min. to 2 hours)
  • Stage III is associated with the passing of the fetal portion of the placenta (this should occur within 4-6 hours after giving birth)

+ - What is the most common problem causing dystocia?

In camelid's, malposition of the fetus is the most common problem and must be resolved either spontaneously or manually before normal birth can occur. Uterine torsion, another common problem, happens when the normal rolling behavior of the animal causes the uterus to twist on itself and prevents the birth of the fetus. This can occur any time from about 7 months of parturition onward but happens most often within the last month of gestation.

+ - How is uterine torsion diagnosed and treated?

  • The dam may show signs of colic (abdominal pain) by kicking at her abdomen or may just act depressed.
  • The veterinarian can do a vaginal examination on the llama or alpaca to determine if the uterus is twisted and in which direction it has rotated.
  • Some cases resolve spontaneously by the female rolling and require no treatment.
  • Sometimes the vet will need to give medication to calm the dam to aid in the correction of the problem; this medication may be Butorphanol or a combination of ketamine and xylazine.
  • Once the dam is calm, she is laid on her side (lateral recumbency) and with the help of several assistants the fetus and uterus are held in place by a plank placed across the abdomen of the dam or my hand manipulation while she is rolled in the opposite direction. This procedure may have to be repeated if the uterus has rotated 180° or more.
  • If the problem is not resolved in two to three attempts, surgery will be necessary and it is possible that this problem may recur in subsequent pregnancies.

+ - What are other causes of dystocia and how are they treated?

  • Some dystocias are caused by shoulder lock, which is where the shoulders of the fetus cannot pass through the birth canal and only the head and part of the front legs can come out.
  • this problem can usually be resolved by rotating the fetus 45-90° until it is in a position where the widest part of the shoulders is passing through the widest part of the birth canal
  • it is important to keep good lubrication in the birth canal and on the fetus to facilitate easier delivery
  • Another problem that can cause dystocia is malpresentation or malposition which occurs when the fetus is not in the correct position to proceed through the birth canal.
  • there are a number of positions in which the fetus can present, including caudal presentation (breech birth or back end first), head deviation (head turned sideways) or transverse (sideways).
  • in addition to the position of the body, the limbs may be flexed or extended and this may cause additional problems such as lack of progression to Stage II of labor. Elbow lock is the most common.
  • the veterinarian can determine the position of the fetus by doing a vaginal exam and can manipulate the fetus until it is in the correct position.
  • if it is not possible to correct the fetal position it will be necessary to perform a cesarean section to extract the fetus.

+ - What should I be doing at home to monitor my llama or alpaca to be sure she does not have dystocia?

  • The most beneficial action an owner can take in preventing dystocia is early intervention. This includes careful monitoring of the dam so that Stage II of labor can be observed and early intervention can be practiced if necessary. (Some dams will not progress if you are sitting right with them, so a video camera or other monitoring device mounted in the barn would be helpful)
  • If a problem occurs or you are not sure if labor is progressing the way it should, do not hesitate to call your veterinarian. It is better to catch a problem and correct it quickly to ensure the delivery of a healthy cria.


Anderson, David E., DVM, MS, Diplomat ACVS, Management of Dystocia in Small Ruminants Including Camelid's, Australian Camelid Veterinary Association Meeting, August 1998.

Youngquist, Robert S., DVM, Current Therapy in Large Animal Theriogenology, 1997, W.B. Saunders, pg. 792-816.

Frazer, Grant, BVSc, MS, "Physiology of Parturition," VM605 Class Notes, May 2004.

David E Anderson, DVM, MS
Diplomat, American College of Veterinary Surgeons
Associate Professor of Surgery, Food Animal
601 Vernon L Tharp Street
College of Veterinary Medicine
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio 43210
Phone: 614-292-6661 Fax: 614-292-3530


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