Neonatology in Llamas and Alpacas
by Dr. David Anderson, DVM, MS, DACVS
The newborn cria is remarkable in many ways. However, the neonatal period (defined as the first weeks of life) is the highest risk period of a llama or alpaca's life. These neonates are susceptible to hypothermia, hyperthermia, hypoglycemia, septicemia, and congenital defects. The owner and veterinarian must work together to maximize the crias ability to thrive. In our research in the Camelid Health Program at Ohio State University, we found that up to 36% of crias suffer some form of disease condition between birth and weaning, and that 2 % of crias died before weaning. The most common disease conditions were diarrhea and infectious diseases. Crias born with difficulty were 4 times more likely to suffer a disease event. Crias born in the spring were the least likely to suffer from diseases. These research data show how important neonatal health care is to the survival and ability to thrive of the cria.
The First Hours The first hours of life are a special bonding period between dam and cria. During this period, minimal to no human contact is needed. Take time to be a good observer but do not interfere with the maternal bonding process. Observe the birthing process if possible, but do not interfere unless absolutely necessary. The cria should be born within 30 to 60 minutes of the onset of Stage II (full strength contraction) labor. The cria will appear disoriented at first and struggle to sit-up within 5 to 15 minutes. The cria may flare the nostrils and may even appear distressed at times, but should not have any difficulty in breathing. Watch for abdominal and thoracic movements, they should be in unison. If the thorax moves inward as the abdomen moves outward, there may be an obstruction to breathing. Observe the nostrils and face. If the nostrils are flaring widely and the cheeks "puff" as the cria exhales, there may be obstruction of the nasal passage. Crias do not breathe very efficiently through their mouths and may grow increasingly desperate for air. If these signs are noted, hold your hand or a mirror in front of the nostrils. You should be able to feel a gust of warm air or see the mirror "fog" with each exhale. The cria should begin to try to stand in the first 30 to 60 minutes. This can be an uncoordinated process, but the cria should be allowed to struggle unimpeded by human hands. The cria should try to nurse within 2 to 4 hours. If the cria has not stood within 2 hours or nursed within 4 hours, human intervention is warranted. At this time, I weigh the cria and "dip" the umbilicus with 2 % tincture of iodine or thoroughly spray the umbilicus with chlorhexidine solution. This will decrease the chance of infection via this exposed surface. The umbilicus (navel) should be re-dipped or sprayed 12 to 24 hours after the first application.
In cold weather (ambient temperature < 40 F or 4 C), earlier intervention is warranted to prevent hypothermia. In hot weather (ambient temperature > 90 F or 32 C), shade is desired to prevent onset of hyperthermia. Ingestion of colostrum is required for passive transfer of immunity from the dam (maternal immunoglobulins and white blood cells). The colostrum also provides an energy dense meal and has a laxative effect for the meconium. The cria should consume 5 % of its body weight in colostrum within the first 6 hours of life and 10 % within the first 12 hours of life to gain adequate protection from the dam.
The udder of the dam should be evaluated to determine if colostrum is present, ensure that the udder is well developed, that the teats are open (wax plug released), and no evidence of mastitis is present. If the dam fails to form colostrum, supplemental immunoglobulins are needed. When supplemental immunity is needed, colostrum from another llama or alpaca is desired. Unfortunately, these are rarely available, but goat, sheep, or cow colostrum may be used as an alternative. These should not be given unless the dam does not have colostrum of her own. Plasma may be administered orally in the first hours after birth, but the absorption of immunoglobulins is often lower than expected via this route of administration. Also, plasma provides little if any energy and must be followed within 2 hours (but not sooner than 30 minutes) by milk feeding.
The First Day
Once the cria is standing and nursing, little attention is needed during the next 24 hours. The dam and cria must have adequate protection from weather and the dam must have an adequate diet to optimize lactation. Great care must be used when trying to provide supplemental heat for crias. Only barn-safe heaters should be used to provide heat. I have seen several cria and dams injured or killed in barn fires and these are extremely unfortunate events. I prefer to weigh crias daily for 7 days, weekly for 4 weeks, then monthly until weaning. Crias will loose up to 1 pound during the first 24 to 36 hours of life. Much of this weight loss is because of drying of the hair coat and loss of internal fluids accumulated during intrauterine life. These fluids are lost by urination, defecation, and breathing. After this time, the cria should gain weight daily. Although crias normally gain 0.5 to 1 pound of weight each day, smaller weight gains are common. Failure to gain weight and, especially, loosing weight after 36 hours is abnormal. The cause of weight loss must be identified and a determination made as to whether the dam is not lactating, the teats are plugged or not functional, the cria is not nursing properly, or the cria is unhealthy. We do see crias "stall", or fail to gain weight, for various periods of time for no apparent reason. This is considered normal if the cria is bright, alert, active, and thriving in all other respects. The cria should pass meconium, the first feces, within 12 hours. Colostrum has a laxative effect and facilitates passage of this "sticky" fecal matter. Crias that receive colostrum substitutes instead of colostrum are more likely to have difficulty passing meconium. I do not advocate routine administration of enemas to crias. However, enemas may be helpful if the cria is known not to have passed the meconium within 12 to 24 hours or is straining to defecate. A "congenital defect check" should be done during the first day of life. Check for nostrils and air movement, check for the anus, vulva or penis, eyes, mouth, and limbs for any abnormality. A thorough auscultation of the heart and lungs should be done to determine if a heart murmur or any abnormality of the lungs is present.
The Second Day
The cria is observed for behavior. A normal cria will eagerly interact with the environment, people, and the dam. I prefer to vaccinate crias for Clostridium perfringens types C and D and Clostridium tetani between 48 and 72 hours old. This vaccine will prime the cria's immune system for a booster vaccine to be given 2 weeks later. If the cria is lethargic or seems depressed, a thorough physical examination including heart rate (normal range, 80 to 120 bpm), breathing (normal range is 20 to 40 and is effortless), and rectal temperature (normal range, 99 to 102 F) are indicated. Vaccination should be delayed until the cria is healthy and normal because these vaccines can be inflammatory. The immune system will not respond properly if the cria is stressed by disease or malnutrition.
The Second Week
The cria should have gained 7 to 14 pounds (3.5 to 7 kgs) since birth. The cria should be running, playing, and be vibrant. A physical examination should be done and a booster vaccine (CD&T) given.
Weaning can be done at various times and is influenced by the health of both the cria and dam. Many crias are weaned when they reach a "target weight" of 60 pounds for alpacas or 100 pounds for llamas. In many cases, these crias are too young to wean at this time. I advocate weaning no earlier than 4 months, but preferably at 6 months. This time allows for optimal development of eating habits and digestion and yields a healthier cria through the first year of life.
However, the health of the dam must not be sacrificed. Thin females must be allowed to regain their body weight and condition. I feel that body condition scoring (BCS) is a valuable tool to evaluate cria and dam. Thin crias are abnormal and a cause for poor condition should be found and corrected. Similarly, thin females are abnormal. If a female is exceedingly thin (BCS of 3 out of 10 or less), early weaning of the cria should be considered. If the female has been bred back at 3 to 4 weeks postpartum, this extra time will allow her to rebuild lost body condition in time to produce adequate colostrum and be fit to lactate for the next cria. Thin females are more likely to have poor quality colostrums and inadequate milk production.
Ricketts is caused by low Vitamin D concentration in the blood. Crias are particularly prone to Vitamin D deficiency in North America. Vitamin D deficiency causes injury to the growth plates and is recognized clinically by crooked legs, arched back, reluctance to walk, lameness, lethargy, and poor growth. This condition is only seen in crias during winter months or when they are totally confined without access to sunlight. In general, crias born in the fall need supplemental Vitamin D during winter months. The easiest form of supplementation is by injecting Vitamin D under the skin at 1000 units per Kg of body weight. Each injection will provide Vitamin D for a period of 60 to 90 days. I suggest injection of supplemental Vitamin D to crias 6 to 9 months old in late November and again in February. Supplementation during Spring, Summer, and Fall should not be necessary. Vitamin D toxicity is possible and close attention to dose, frequency, and time of year is warranted.
David E Anderson, DVM, MS
Diplomate, 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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