By Bev Henry, Reprinted from The Camelid Quarterly, June 2009
When we think of herd health, let us not forget the mental well-being of the herd, as well as physical health. As with humans, stress has a tremendous adverse influence on llama health. A secure environment will go a long way to keeping stress to a minimum.
Llamas are extremely sensitive animals, needing the security of familiar surroundings, familiar herd mates, and a predictable routing if they are to thrive.
What do we need to do in order to achieve this?
Those few breeders with large herds on large acreage have more management options, allowing them to come close to approximating natural conditions. By "natural" I mean the herd groupings and feeding patterns one would likely find in the wild.
But the majority of llama owners in North America today are keeping llamas on small acreage. With these limitations, we need to pay close attention to herd dynamics. In a restricted area it is much easier for a dominant llama to bully a more timid animal, or to exclude one from the feed source. If dog packs or wild predators are cruising the neighborhood, llamas confined to a small area may feel very vulnerable.
How can we ease the stress?
The first and most important thing we can do is pay attention! Every time you go out to feed or clean up poop, take a deep breath, slow down, and spend a few quiet moments watching your critters. This quiet time with our llamas not only provides the opportunity to pick up on health or behavioral issues, it also has the added benefit of reducing our own stress level.
Make sure each animal has free access to feed and shelter. Be alert for any unusual behavior; watch for the animal that is isolating itself or being forced into isolation by its herd mates. Perhaps the addition of only one gate or one simple fence — fencing in a corner, for instance — will provide more security for a new llama or one who is being bullied.
Being sold and relocated is one of the most stressful events in a llama's life. He has lost his herd mates, his human companions, and his secure and familiar environs. Watch any new introductions to any grouping very carefully for several days. It takes only seconds for disaster to strike.
Females will usually accept a new female after an introductory period but they will often chase and isolate the newcomer for several days. You may need to feed a new introduction separately until she has been accepted.
Males tend to be more aggressive with newcomers. An adult intact male is a powerful and potentially dangerous animal. A full-power body slam from an aggressive male can break ribs and rupture internal organs.
On rare occasions, even geldings have been known to attack and kill newcomers, particularly in confined areas where llamas have no opportunity to establish their own zones. Be very cautious introducing a llama to your herd and do it by degrees if at all possible. House the new llama in an adjacent area to allow him or her to get to know the herd across the safety of a fence.
Be sure all fighting teeth are trimmed — start to check these around the age of two, if not earlier — and watch that the rough stuff doesn't get out of hand with males housed together.
Some intact males are so territorial they simply will not tolerate other males and need to be housed separately. If you have a stud like this, he will be happier with some sort of companion. Neutered male goats often work well. Everybody needs somebody!
Make sure fences separating males and females are safe and secure, and, if possible, provide a buffer zone between fences separating intact males and breeding females. Check that your fences are secure from roving packs of dogs if that is a problem in your area.
If you are breeding, try to plan for at least two crias to arrive in that season. Babies need company for normal social development. Should you be stuck with a single cria in any one year, do leave the baby with its mom as long as possible. A single female cria shouldn't need to be separated from its mom at all, and a male cria is probably safe with the female herd until at least ten months of age. By this time, his dam will likely have already weaned him.
Single male crias can get pretty bratty and disruptive about this time, and need the company of older males to teach them some manners. In other words, they need to be sent to boot camp. Moms and "aunties" tend to be far too lenient with younger males, watching their antics with rather bemused "isn't he just the sweetest thing!" looks, rather than snapping him to attention and demanding respect, as the boys would.
Throwing a ten-month-old weanling male in with the boys can be deadly though, so be very cautious here. It may be safer to isolate baby with an older gentle gelding for a time, one who is willing to be a "nanny" to the youngster until he has learned a few basic manners and his place in the scheme of things. A yearling male may bond with the weanling and make a good playmate. Some studs are exceedingly tolerant of newly weaned youngsters.
Remember that a weanling will not be able to successfully compete for food with older animals. Unless you have unlimited good hay/pasture available, the baby will need supplemental feeding for at least the first year to attain his full growth potential. Make sure you can isolate the youngster at feeding time.
Aging animals in your herd may suddenly need extra care. They may have lost their position in the herd and need supplemental feeding. They may be experiencing problems with worn teeth, so be alert for dropped wads of wet, partly chewed hay or lumps or swellings along the outside of the jaw. If you see a problem have your vet check to see if filing off sharp points (floating) of worn teeth may be necessary.
To ensure that your routine procedures, such as shots, shearing and nail trimming, are as stress-free as possible, try to get to a workshop put on by a Camelidynamics practitioner in your area. A simple change in your approach may make a world of difference.
Being alert and observant at all times will go a long way towards keeping your herd happy and healthy.
About the Author
Bev Henry has been involved with pack llamas since 1997 and is now breeding athletic pack stock along with husband Barry in Barriere, British Columbia, Canada. Bev and Barry are focusing on preserving the old style Ccara llamas. Bev comes from a background of a lifetime training and riding performance horses, is an amateur outdoor photographer, and an artist who interprets her images in pencil and watercolor.