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Top tips for your first alpaca consult

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01 March 2015, at 12:00am

GRAHAM DUNCANSON provides an introduction to dealing with alpacas, from the owners and the terms they use to the diagnosis and treatment of common conditions, not forgetting that there are no licensed medicines

IF you speak Spanish you are well away but for us lesser mortals here are some words of alpaca jargon and what they mean.

Cria is a young alpaca in its first year; gelding or wether is a castrated male; hembra is a female; Kush is a classic camel dorsal recumbency position; and macho is an entire male.

Owners will always call the fleece or wool, fibre and then will blind you with science saying such and such an animal is 17 microns which is very fine or 23 microns which is very average.

Never be foolish enough to name a colour. There are 22 recognised in the UK but only 16 in the USA. Fibre for grading is collected from the middle of the back. There are two fibre types: huacaya and suri. The latter has dreadlocks a little like a Lincoln Long Wool.

Ears may cause you some confusion as they can be long and short but also gopher, frostbitten, banana-shaped, pancaked or curled. The author always lets the owner tell him what they are!

The limbs are mainly straight forward for most of us: e.g. valgus, sickle hocked or buck kneed. However, limbs can be said to be camped forward or camped behind. I assume this is describing some defect without reference to the animal’s sexual orientation, but I might be wrong. They do mate in dorsal recumbency and an aggressive macho is not too fussy about the sex of the smaller animal under him.

Locomotion may be said to be normal or crossing the line, which I assume means crabbing! I am at a loss to know what excessive winging means. I don’t think it has anything to do with bird’s wings or even pigeon toes.

Type of owner

There is a wide range of owners. At the top you have large breeding herds which are totally commercial like a big beef suckler herd except the owners do have special favourites which may have extra money spent on them.

These breeders are very knowledgeable but are very happy if you give them reasonable explanations based on sound principles often extrapolated from other species.

I do not apologise for promoting my book, Veterinary Treatments of Llamas and Alpacas. This is focused on animals in the UK. The bible is Murray Fowler’s Medicine and Surgery of South American Camelids. This, however, is focused on the States. Sadly, big breeders may have either of these books. The flip side is that knowledge is safer than looking on Google.

Next in order is the small breeder who I find the most difficult. These owners think they are going to make money from their animals. They rarely do, but they want to cut corners to save money and often the animals suffer as a result.

I shouldn’t generalise but they often pretend to be very knowledgeable but in reality often are not only ignorant but also have difficulty understanding even quite simple instructions. This type of owner will quiz vets on their knowledge of alpacas.

You are likely to fail if you haven’t managed the Inca Trail leading 10 llamas. I have in fact been to Peru, Argentina and Chile but I rarely mention that.

I usually let them rabbit on for a few minutes and then I launch into a spiel on genetics stating that old world camels have exactly the same genetics as new world camelids.

I then intimate that I am reading a paper at the World Camel and Camelid conference in Kazakhstan in June 2015 and watch their eyes glaze over. So, readers, if all else fails you can consider joining me!

The most pleasant owners are the ones who own just two geldings and enjoy looking after them. They are really pets and they are very well looked after. These owners are normally very sensible and welfare friendly, so that if an animal has a bad colic they are happy to allow you to do your best but they do not expect miracles and will let you put the animal to sleep if there is no chance of recovery.

Medicines

There are no licensed medicines available for camelids in the UK and so all your treatments will be carried out under the cascade principle. Therefore, it is sensible to get camelid owners to sign a disclaimer. However, I think it is OTT to get them to sign every time so I feel one signed disclaimer, scanned onto their file, is sufficient.

When to refer

Medicine cases are relatively straightforward as you will have some time to contact other, perhaps more experienced, colleagues. The ideal is the camelid forum run by the British Veterinary Camelid Society. You can join the society, which is seriously inexpensive, by e-mailing secretary@camelids.org.

The difficult cases are the surgical emergencies. We at Westover are all happy to carry out caesarean sections on parturient animals. We do these without sedation but with a local block in lateral recumbency with the animal lying on its right side in a similar manner to a ewe.

It is important to be aware that there appears to be more haemorrhage with the incisions in both the abdominal muscles and the uterine wall; however, we have not had any problems.

It is the colic cases which we find difficult: first of all to decide if surgery is appropriate and then how to carry it out. Scanning the abdomen and a belly tap are certainly helpful.

Routine bloods are useful provided they can be done in-house. The time lag of sending them away makes the results “history”. However, they are useful particularly if there is no chance of a post mortem.

My advice is, if in doubt after due consultation with the owner, do a laparotomy. My more equine-minded colleagues go in for a GA with isoflurane after knock down and have the animal in dorsal recumbency. There is no doubt that they get a much better view of the abdominal viscera.

I still regret missing an intussusception when I carried out a caesarean section through the left flank thinking I was dealing with a uterine torsion prior to parturition.

The cria was alive and did well but the mother died after three days. The diagnosis was made at PM. I suppose it is possible that the bowel lesion occurred post-surgery but realistically I think I missed it.

If you are going to carry out a GA it is not without risks and you need an extra long laryngoscope. However, it would seem that in colic cases this would be the gold standard. What is most important is that as a practitioner you must act.

Alpacas are very stoical and so do not throw themselves about like a thoroughbred but they are still feeling pain. We have a duty not to leave them to suffer in the vain hope that they will get better with antibiotics and pain relief.

The real problem arises if a practitioner feels it is in the best interests of the animal to be immediately referred to a more experienced colleague. Such colleagues providing such a service 24/7 are rarer than hens’ teeth.

I am very pleased to hear that a new facility for alpacas is being set up near East Grinstead in the near future. We are happy to receive cases here in Norfolk but the M25 makes the long journey rather problematic.

It would certainly be prudent for any practice treating alpacas to have the telephone number of the nearest facility to hand.

The normal consult

I should not have frightened my readers with these horrendous scenarios as most consults are going to be straightforward. It is just sensible to be prepared for the worst. It is helpful to have practice protocols in place for simple procedures; however, each owner needs to be treated as an individual and so the protocols need to be tailored.

There is little evidence-based medicine to help clinicians but no one will fault you if you stick to sound scientific principles.

Worming

We are all conscious of anthelmintic resistance and so the SCOPS principles apply to alpacas. Faecal worm egg counts are very important to monitor the stock.

It has to be stressed to owners that they should not just bring in random mixed samples. Ideally, you require individual named samples.

If owners do not feel they can afford to test all their animals, then a 10% sample would still be very helpful but it must be from a single animal and not a bulked-up sample which may give strange results.

Post-treatment FECs are useful to look for resistance but these should be delayed until at least 10 days posttreatment.

Alpaca owners, on advice from their friends, in the past have injected Dectomax (dolamectin) which they find easier than drenching and erroneously think it also treats chorioptic mange. In my hands it is not an efficient treatment for either.

The dangerous worm for alpacas in the UK is the barbers-pole worm Haemonchus contortus. This worm can cause death before the adults start to lay eggs and so FECs will be misleading.

Gum colour is helpful: very white gums indicates severe anaemia which is likely to be caused by Haemonchus. If the animal is really lethargic a blood transfusion may be indicated.

The white drenches (benzimadazoles) may not be effective and so I usually use levamisole or ivermectin by mouth.

There is a myth that sheep worms should be given at double the sheep dose to alpacas. Certainly, double dose Panacur is safe. However, I do not think practitioners should advise doubling the dose of either levamisole or ivermectin.

Fluke

Alpacas are affected by liver fluke Fasciola hepatica. Normally this is chronic as in cattle but we have seen acute fluke as in sheep in the autumn. Treatment is with oral triclabendazole at the sheep dosage.

Coccidia

Young alpacas are effected by coccidia but clinicians should remember that most species are non-pathogenic. It is only certain species, e.g. Emeria maculensis, which are recognisable by their very large oocysts which will cause problems. Treatment is with oral toltrazuril or oral diclazuril, both at the sheep dose.

Mange

Chorioptes spp is definitely the most common mange mite effecting alpacas. In my hands regular painting of the crusty lesions with a 1 to 1 mixture of eprinomectin and DMSO is the answer.

In conclusion

Practitioners and owners should never forget that alpacas can contract bovine tuberculosis. So my final piece of advice is: don’t kiss an alpaca.