Home > Alpaca Library >
Alpaca Basics for Newcomers
Author: Kraushaar, King, King, and Mason
Congratulations~ you are now an alpaca owner! You probably chose the alpaca for its beautiful appearance, charming personality, intelligence and gorgeous fiber. Now that you have the animal home, you are likely to have many questions. Ideally, the person who sold you your animal will be available to you and able to answer questions and help you get started.
If this is not possible for any reason, weve developed this short handout to get you going in the right direction. This is not a comprehensive guide, however, and we encourage you to familiarize yourself with alpaca care by finding a veterinarian who has worked with camelids before, connecting with other alpaca owners, and reading the many books and magazines dedicated to this fascinating creature.
FINDING A VET
A good veterinarian is someone you will certainly want available to you. Even if your alpaca remains perfectly healthy, as most do, your vet will be a wealth of information should you have questions about your alpacas needs. Alpacas are not like horses, sheep, goats or cows.
Youll want a vet who understands the unique needs of the camelid family. These animals have entirely different needs when it comes to nutrition, medication dosing and even parasite prevention, so make sure the vet you choose knows or has access to this information. If you acquired your alpaca before finding a vet, make this your first priority. You can call other alpaca and/or llama owners to find out who their veterinarian is, or check with the nearest vet school for leads. It is especially important to have a good alpaca vet when medications are neededmany medications and vaccinations are considered off label use when used for alpacas. Youll need your vet to help you understand issues such as amounts and dose frequency.
Your veterinarian can talk to you about care issues such as toenail trimming, tooth care, and other maintenance concerns.
Gelding your male alpaca is a good idea; having this procedure done around age two will help the non-breeding male remain easy to handle.
FEEDING THE ALPACA
Alpacas are pretty easy to feed, once you understand some basic needs. Alpacas are incomplete ruminants. They chew cud, have teeth only along the lower jaw and a hard upper palate. Their jaws move in a figure-8 motion to grind their food. Alpacas have been thriving on a low-calorie diet for thousands of years, and its important to provide them with feed that isnt too rich or high in protein. In the alpacas case, more is not better. Youll want to learn how to body score your animalthis is the best way to find out what kind of shape your animal is in. Your veterinarian can instruct you, and so can an experienced owner. Basically, you use your thumb and forefinger against the alpacas backbone. The resulting space between your fingers should be a nice, wide V shape. A skinny V means your alpaca is underweight; if your hand stays flat across the animals back, it is too fat. Itll take time to learn the correct positioning of your fingers, as well as whats the right condition for your animal. Under and over weight alpacas can run into serious health problems, so this is an important skill to learn. An alpaca in full fleece looks deceptively fuzzy, so dont rely on what your eyes seemake sure you put your hands on your animal(s) often!
Alpacas need a high quality, mid-to-lower protein grass hay. Second or third cut hay seems to produce the least waste. High protein hay can cause health and fleece problems. Hay testing can be done by many feed stores and extension agencies. Avoid legumes like alfalfa and trefoil unless your vet suggests it for weight gain or reproductive purposes. The hay should be fresh (less than a year old) and contain no mold. If you are unfamiliar with purchasing hay, ask for help. Remember that alpacas have very different nutritional requirements than other livestock. You may have to search to find the right hay.
Good pasture is another wonderful food for these animals. Use unfertilized grass, and keep it mowed to discourage weeds and encourage grazing. Alpacas generally avoid grazing on long grass. If your animals are on grass pasture only in the summer, keep a close eye on their body condition. Overused pasture can quickly decrease nutritionally and your alpaca may seem to eat a lot, but in fact may not be getting adequate nutrition. Overgrazed pastures often have an increased parasite load, too.
Some owners make hay available year round. Check with other owners for ideas on hat feedersthe hay should be off the ground to keep it dry and palatable. There are many types of hay feeders available.
Alpacas enjoy grain, and grain can be a useful tool in the camelid nutrition program. Their digestive systems are not really set up for grain, though, and it shouldnt be a large part of the diet. Your vet can advise you on grains (there are specific formulas available designed solely for alpacas). Alpacas also need a source of minerals and vitamins. Most alpaca owners utilize specially designed camelid mineral, available from livestock suppliers that specialize in camelid needs. A salt lick is not an adequate substitute. Last, but not least, alpacas need a constant source of fresh water.
Alpacas are a pretty hardy species. There are things that can go wrong, though, and some of these things are preventable. Depending on where you live, there are a number of parasites that can get into your animals systems and cause other health threatening issues as well. Most alpacas need yearly vaccinations and a physical from a qualified veterinarian. Please make it a priority to meet with your vet to discuss parasite testing and prevention, and learn about necessary shots and vaccinations in your geographical area. Caring for a sick alpaca is not easythey are stoic creatures and do not usually look ill until things have gone very wrong. Treating a sick alpaca is also often quite expensive. Plan ahead and do what it takes to ensure the health of your animal.
There isnt much you need to do to maintain the alpacas gorgeous fleece. No brushing, bathing or grooming of any kind is necessary. However, your alpaca must be shorn once a year. Leaving heavy fleece on year round makes the animal susceptible to heat stress, skin conditions, parasites and other problems. Professional shearers often wont go to smaller farms with just a few alpacas, so its worth it to call other owners and plan for a larger group. Shearing should happen before the temperature reaches seventy degrees Fahrenheit consistently.
If you want to use the fleece to make yarn or other products, consult with a fiber mill for further advice.
Alpacas are far better off living in a herd. They are social animals, and having at least two alpacas is best for them. A single alpaca may be susceptible to stress, and could develop an ulcer, behavior problems, or even death. It is possible to house alpacas with other livestock, but youll want to be sure your pastures and barns meet the needs of all occupants.
Alpacas, for instance, are more easily frightened and may allow a goat or two to consume all their food. With proper planning, however, several species can live in harmony with alpacas.
Youll want to learn how to properly handle your alpaca. Chasing is not a good idea; its important to learn the proper ways to approach and halter train these animals.
Hopefully, your animal was halter trained before coming to you. The seller should be able to show you how to catch and halter the animal. If not, again, find others familiar with alpacas to help you locate training resources. Alpacas mishandled at a young age can develop behavior problems, as can bottle fed babies if the feeding was done incorrectly. Jumping on people, spitting at people, and approaching too closely are all signs that an alpaca may have a behavior problem. Advice should be sought immediately to avoid dangerous behaviors developing. A well trained animal is gentle, approachable and stress-free.
Again, congratulations! We hope your alpacas provide you years of joy and companionship.
Written by Kirsten Kraushaar, Jim and Sue King, and Matt Mason, DVM
< Back to Getting Started