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Management of Llamas and Alpacas


Ellen Wiedner

, VMD, DACVIM (LAIM), DACZM, DECZM (ZHM), Hyrax Consulting, LLC

Last full review/revision Oct 2021 | Content last modified Oct 2021
Topic Resources

Housing Considerations for Llamas and Alpacas

Llamas and alpacas (collectively called lamoids) can be housed with other species, including sheep, goats, and horses. Guard llamas for sheep flocks and goat herds typically live with those animals.

Llamas and alpacas are herd animals and do poorly if isolated from cohorts or other animals. Ill animals should be housed with herdmates if appropriate. Even visual access will provide comfort and decrease stress if actual physical contact is not possible. If sufficient space is available, large groups of males (or females) can be pastured together. However, in the presence of nonpregnant females, sexually intact males and recently castrated geldings will often spend much of their time fighting, typically biting at the ears, neck, and scrotum.

Llamas and alpacas generally do not destroy fences and can usually be confined behind a 1.5-m or 1.2-m fence, respectively. Barbed wire is not needed for containment. Electric fences have also been successfully used.

A somewhat unique behavioral characteristic of camelids is the use of communal dung piles. Animals urinate and defecate on the same pile, with favorite sites being in the corners of barns. Normal feces are pelleted and firm. Unless forage becomes very limited, animals will not graze in areas around or downstream from dung piles, which tends to limit spread of internal parasites.

The urethral diameter in both males and females is relatively small, and the process of urination takes much longer than in other species of comparable size. Males are prone to urolithiasis Urolithiasis in Ruminants Obstructive urolithiasis is a significant cause of morbidity and mortality in male ruminants. Uroliths form from protein and mineral components of the diet. They develop in the urinary bladder... read more Urolithiasis in Ruminants .

Feeding and Nutrition of Llamas and Alpacas

Most mature male and female llamas and alpacas will maintain appropriate body condition on 10% to 14% crude protein grass hay with total digestible nutrients (TDN) of 50%–55%. Late gestation and heavily lactating females require a slightly higher percentage of crude protein and TDN of 60%–65%. Under basal conditions, most camelids eat 1.8%–2% of body wt/day on a dry-matter basis. Legumes are usually not needed and may contribute to obesity. Palpating the amount of tissue over the neck, the lumbar vertebrae, and the ribs can best assess body condition. Body condition is generally scored from 1 (emaciated) to 9 (obese), with 5 being ideal.

Seasonal vitamin D deficiency, characterized by diminished growth, angular limb deformities, kyphosis, and a reluctance to move, can be a problem in heavily fibered animals raised in regions with poor sun exposure during winter months. The problem is most severe in rapidly growing, fall-born crias. Serum phosphorus concentration <3 mg/dL, calcium:phosphorus ratio >3:1, and vitamin D concentration <15 nmol/L in crias <6 months old are diagnostic. Normal phosphorus and vitamin D concentrations in this age group are 6.5–9 mg/dL and >50 nmol/L, respectively.

Ionophores such as monensin or salinomycin, found in many cattle feeds, are highly toxic to camelids; thus, pelleted or mixed grain feed intended for ruminants should not be fed to camelids or even formulated in the same facilities that handle ionophores, because of the risk of accidental contamination. Copper toxicity Copper Poisoning in Animals Acute and chronic copper poisoning may occur in most animal species, although susceptibility varies markedly between species. Chronic poisoning is more common and is characterized by low morbidity... read more is another concern in camelids. Although copper is a trace mineral requirement in camelid diets, mistakes in formulation and use of multiple supplements without full knowledge of total copper intake has resulted in copper toxicosis due to excess chronic intake.

Handling and Restraint of Llamas and Alpacas

The key to working with camelids is training. Llamas and alpacas have lived in domestication with humans for more than 5000 years. These animals can be halter trained, taught to walk on a lead, kush (sit in a sternal position) on command, tolerate foot trims, and accept basic examination procedures. Nevertheless, these species can injure humans, particularly if stressed or in pain. Llamas can kick hard enough to break human bones. Camelids typically kick forward or to the side. Llamas and alpacas can also inflict serious bites and spit.

Fortunately, both llamas and alpacas are highly trainable. Food can be an excellent motivator to get camelids to come to a particular place. A coffee can containing a very small amount of sweet feed, shaken vigorously, will encourage most camelids to move toward the noise if they are rewarded afterward for appropriate behavior. Because they are herd animals and separating them can cause stress, moving two camelids together is sometimes easier than one alone.

If camelids are accustomed to restraint, sedation becomes unnecessary for most non-painful procedures. Restraint can be as basic as one handler’s arm around the base of the neck with the other arm holding the tail or flank region on the opposite side. A halter-trained camelid can easily be led into a smaller area for examination and treatment. Specially designed llama chutes should be used for reproductive examinations and other potentially uncomfortable procedures. These can be purchased commercially, and designs for home construction are also available. A good chute should have two belly bands that can be strapped under the animal to prevent it from dropping into a kush position. Ideally, a chin band to support the head is also present.

If no chute is available, large llamas should be asked to kush prior to examination to provide some measure of safety from kicks. Small llamas and alpacas can be herded into a stall by two experienced handlers and positioned so that one flank is against a wall and the animal’s rump is in a corner. One handler should be at the shoulder, the other at the hip, both facing in the same direction as the alpaca. Some alpacas respond better to veterinary procedures if humans, rather than restraint chutes, are used to hold the animals.

Camelids will pin their ears back and lift their heads when upset; the degree of pinning and head-lifting indicates just how upset they are. Both llamas and alpacas also make distinctive noises when unhappy. When a camelid is behaving aggressively or is upset, sedation may be necessary or veterinary procedures may need to be deferred.

Maintaining control of the animal’s head is important because the neck is quite muscular and can move with great speed. Camelids can be deterred from spitting by placing a cotton bandana or dish towel over the nose and mouth of the patient, tucking the ends into the halter. Llamas and alpacas tend not to like the smell of their spit and quickly learn not to spit when muzzled in this manner. Muzzles can also prevent biting.

Sedation and Anesthesia of Llamas and Alpacas


There are several options for sedation and anesthesia of camelids (see Table: Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas ). Generally, alpacas require a higher dose of sedatives than llamas to achieve the same results. For short procedures, withholding food and water is usually unnecessary, but for longer procedures or ones that necessitate recumbency, food should be withheld for 24 to 36 hours beforehand, and water should be withheld for 12 hours prior. Bloating occurs in camelids but is uncommon; aspiration of first stomach compartment (C1) contents is a greater risk. Camelids tend to have a lot of salivation when in lateral recumbency or under general anesthesia. Thus, the neck may require elevation on a hay bale or plank, with the chin lowered to allow saliva or ingesta to run out of the mouth.

When choosing chemical restraint, the clinician should decide whether the animal should be standing, kushed, or recumbent. For standing and kushed sedation, an α2-adrenergic agonist administered alone or with added butorphanol is usually adequate. Intramuscular injection into the triceps muscle precludes struggling to find and inject into a vein. Xylazine often works better than either detomidine and medetomidine in camelids, although any of these can be administered.

Camelids tend to become sedated slowly; thus, it is important to wait a full 20–25 minutes after injection for adequate effects. Reversal agents should always be available for use when the procedure is complete. See table: Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas for suggested doses. Because of the risk of heat stress, outdoor procedures should be scheduled for cooler times of day and shade should be available when needed.

Xylazine can be administered for standing sedation. Higher dosages will result in recumbency and provide a light plane of anesthesia for 20–30 minutes. Simultaneous administration of xylazine, ketamine, and butorphanol usually provides 20–30 minutes of recumbent restraint. Butorphanol can provide sedation of short duration and is especially useful for head, ear, and dental procedures.


Induction and maintenance of anesthesia is similar to that in other domestic species; however, tracheal intubation may require some practice. Prior to intubation, the patient should be kushed and extremely sedate. Next, the neck and head are hyperextended into a straight line. A mare insemination pipette can be used as a stylette for the endotracheal tube. The jaws are opened with gauze strips by an assistant who is standing over the kushed animal facing the same way. The anesthetist then uses a long, flat-bladed laryngoscope to visualize the glottis. After the stylette is pushed past the glottis, a cuffed endotracheal tube is slipped over it, then the stylette is withdrawn. Long endotracheal tubes are recommended for camelids. Internal diameters ranging between 6–14 mm are appropriate for llama and alpacas.

Confirmation of appropriate tube placement should be done using a capnograph or a mirror placed over the exposed end of the tube. Condensation on the mirror indicates correct placement. A radiograph may help in complicated situations. Monitoring anesthesia is, of course, appropriate. In addition to capnography, pulse oximetry and ECG monitoring can help make anesthesia safer.

Epidural anesthesia can be a useful adjunct to perineal surgery such as repair of prolapses of rectum or vagina. Epidural anesthesia can also be helpful while alleviating dystocia. The epidural site must be aseptically prepared, and the animal should be in a kush position. To identify the correct location for epidural placement, which is the space between the last sacral vertebra (S5) and the first coccygeal vertebra (C1), the clinician should raise and lower the tail to locate the most cranial, obviously moveable space. A 1- or 1.5-inch 20-gauge needle can be inserted to a depth of 1.5 to 2 cm on midline at a 60° angle to the vertebral column with the bevel facing cranially. If the correct spot has been selected, CSF will flow through the hub of the needle. A syringe containing 2% lidocaine can be attached to the needle hub and its contents slowly administered. Do not add epinephrine. See table: Anesthetic Agents and Protocols Used in South American Camelids Anesthetic Agents and Protocols Used in South American Camelids Anesthetic Agents and Protocols Used in South American Camelids

Clinical Pathology of Llamas and Alpacas


Evaluation of hematologic and blood chemical values is similar to that in other species, with a few important differences. Camelid RBCs are relatively small and elliptical and may produce anomalous results when evaluated using an automated cell counter. Normal PCV is 27%–45%, normal RBC counts are 10.1–17.3 × 106/mcL, and normal WBC counts are 8,000–21,400/mcL.

Basal glucose concentrations in llamas and alpacas are more typical of monogastric species than ruminants. Basal concentrations are 82–160 mg/dL, but glucose concentrations >300 mg/dL are common after stressful events. For additional hematologic and serum biochemical reference ranges, see Table: Hematologic Reference Ranges Hematologic Reference Ranges read more and .

Pharmacology and Cautions for Llamas and Alpacas


In the US, no drugs are currently approved for use in llamas and alpacas, so all use is extralabel. Camelids in North America have the potential to be food animals, making drug withdrawal time a consideration. See table: Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and Alpacas

Adverse events have occurred with a wide variety of drugs commonly used in hoofstock when administered to camelids. The pharmacokinetics of drugs when used in camelids are often considerably different than in other ruminants. When possible, it is advisable to extrapolate drug doses from one camelid species to another, rather than from a ruminant species to a camelid. Many oral drugs, including omeprazole and sulfa-trimethoprim, do not survive the three stomach compartments, which means most medications must be injected to be useful. See table: Drugs to Avoid or Use with Caution in South American Camelids Drugs to Avoid or Use with Caution in South American Camelids Drugs to Avoid or Use with Caution in South American Camelids

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