By Hilary Ware with Dr. Barbara Perkins
For most of us caring for camelids, regular evaluation of their physical well-being is routine. We monitor their hay and supplement intake (either grains or other additional nutrients besides forage), provide fresh clean water every day at all times, and make sure they are protected from excessive heat or cold. We observe that they aren't fighting and hurting each other. We provide a place to exercise, roll, graze and play, as herds love to do. We know to watch toenail growth, shear excess fiber early in spring, weigh animals if scales are available, and follow our veterinarian's recommended parasite and disease control program.
Most of us also make a practice of regular hands-on examination of our animals (even though some of them resist that touch. They get used to it, with training and time.) How else can we know the condition of flesh near the backbone under that fleece when we check body condition? Is that fit muscle between the back legs or flab? (Please see the excellent article in the Maine Llama Letter of February 2005, from the Southeast Llama Rescue website, on Body Scoring.)
I have recently learned from my veterinarian, Dr. Barbara Perkins, that a simple "color check" when doing your hands-on evaluation can give a more complete picture of your animals' wellness. By color check, she means checking the color of the visible mucous membrane tissue that lines the mouth, inner eye, and in females, the vagina. This tissue is full of small, superficial blood vessels, which makes it an easily accessible indicator for circulatory, and particularly red blood cell, health. Knowing what normal looks like, then making regular checks will show changes that could indicate a problem. (See Dr. Susan Tornquist's article on Red Blood Cells in Llamas, Maine Llama Letter Feb 2005, for a discussion of what could be wrong.)
How does one check mucous membrane color? Sometimes llamas yawn and one can sneak a peak… but gum and mouth membrane color is so variable, from pink to black depending on the animal's coloration, that this can be unreliable. Plus, have you noticed there are very few llamas willing to let their owner open their mouths to take a look?
A better location, and not difficult with practice, is the conjunctiva of the eye. With halter on, gently place a hand on the far (opposite) cheek to steady the llama's head. Use your thumb to gently draw down the left eye's lower lid far enough to expose the inner surface. Note the color. It should be a vibrant pink- not hot pink, just healthy. Check out your own eye to see a good color (unless you happen to be anemic!). Do a baseline check on all animals and note it. Then check monthly or so, when you do your other physical evaluations. That way, by referring back to your record, any changes will be obvious. If you have a helper, there is an alternate checkpoint on females. Gently pull open the vulva to see the color of the lining of the vagina. Unbred females probably mind this less that pregnant ones. No alternate suggestions for males- sorry. They are more than private about their parts!
Very light pink or white mucous membrane color indicates a problem that needs attention from your vet. This is not a situation you can solve yourself! We know llamas are very stoic. Even a severely anemic animal can seem to be functioning normally, and then crash without warning. Routine color check is one easy and effective way to heed the warning and avoid that outcome. With a little practice, you will become comfortable assessing mucous membrane color, and it will become an important component of your herd wellness monitoring. You will be well on the way to being the best llama steward you can be. Good luck, and go for it!