By Erika Krauss, Reprinted from the GALA Newsletter, December 2007
How can I tell if my llama is losing weight? The first and most important thing to know about your llama’s health is how much should this animal weigh? This should be a question you ask about your animals when you first buy them. If, as a small-scale llama owner you do not own a scale, you can always ask a vet to weigh your animal in the future.
It is often difficult to check a llama's weight by sight because of the amount of wool coverage on the body. However, a simple and quick way to see if your animal is overweight is to check the angle of its backbone directly in front of the hips. When you first receive your animal, assuming it is a healthy weight, drape your hand, thumb on one side, four fingers on the other of the backbone in front of the croup. The angle made by those two opposing sides should be at least a 45 to 55 degree angle. The owner needs to account for each animal's specific body type, but if the angle is smaller or larger than that, the animal could be under or overweight. If you are still unsure about the animal's weight look at the chest: does it look full and jiggle when it walks? You can also feel for fat deposits in the lower end behind the armpit. If there are no fat deposits, then the animal is probably more underweight than your original assessment from the backbone test.
Cause of Underweight Animals
In most of the northeast, up to six llamas can graze on a pasture of two acres, while the ratio of horses is only one animal to two acres. Llamas are known as the "wonder animal" for consuming the least amount of resources when it comes to surface area of pasture. However, this can make a severe generalization. This ratio is for an average size llama with average bodily needs. Get help from your local extension service to check the pasture quality, and have your hay tested every year. A llama's physical development may not end until age 4 or 5, so extra food and/or nutrients are needed in these critical years of growth. They will be mostly adding muscle and "filling out" at ages past 4. A llama older than 14 years old is susceptible to old age (an average lifespan of a llama being 20 years old), and older animals typically need some dietary supplements. Like any animal, it is difficult for llamas to assimilate nutrients without the proper vitamins. An essential way to keep all of your animals well-fed is by having a Ilama-specific loose mineral mix out for consumption at all times in their feeding area(s). As always, water is vital to their systems and if there are not adequate amounts of water for your llamas their health and weight will fail as a result.
Another time when llamas need extra food is if they are pregnant or nursing. While a dam's body is going through stages of providing for a fetus or cria, it needs the appropriate changes to diet. This information can be obtained from a local veterinarian or an accredited book such as Story's Guide to Raising Llamas or The Complete Alpaca Book. Always be ready for changing weather and have sufficient amounts of feed and water depending on the temperature, ventilation, humidity, precipitation and altitude of your area.
As mentioned above, animals below or above their "prime" age can suffer if not fed appropriate amounts of food. While a cria or young llama is nursing, it needs to have extra food that is high in protein that will help the cria to grow. It is imperative that the dam has enough water to produce the amount of milk needed to feed the cria. If an owner notices that his/her young llama is not growing at a healthy rate (one-half to a pound per day in the first few weeks), consult a vet or try giving the dam extra food. If the cria is eating solid food and is not energetic, it may also be a sign that more food is needed.
Our geriatric llamas can have a few more problems in their old age than the juveniles. An older llama can have a hard time digesting or absorbing nutrients from its food. Sometimes they need more processed food, or grains with higher amounts of energy and vitamins, which can include things like beet pulp, oats, and alfalfa pellets.
Another problem commonly found in older animals is failing tooth structure. If your adult llama appears to not be chewing properly check for tooth decay or askew tooth erosion. Tooth problems can lead to problems grazing, chewing and digesting. A llama has three parts to its stomach. One stores food and allows it to be regurgitated and chewed again, which aids in digestion. If the balance of the body is thrown off, then digestion may not be complete within the body. What can result is not enough food or slow absorption of nutrients. An older animal may also be low in the hierarchy of a herd and it may be doubly difficult to obtain food because of the competition and tooth and/or mouth pain. Any age animal can always develop a tooth or jaw abscess that would inhibit eating and digestion. An overbite or under-bite may also prove to be problematic in some cases.
If you have an older llama that has problems with digestion and chewing her food thoroughly, mix a grain of one part alfalfa cubes, one part whole oats, and one part beet pulp and add hot water and let it sit for 15 minutes. This will create a mash that will be easily chewed by your geriatric friend.
Underfeeding and age are common variables in a llama's health. Just as important are parasites. The kinds of parasites I will refer to in this article are intestinal parasites that live in the digestive path of the llama and consume the food the llama takes in. Parasites can live in young, old, underfed and overfed animals. Any animal that is exposed to a parasite of the digestive tract is susceptible to infestation. Most often, these parasites live with the llama and lay eggs that exit the animal with their feces onto the pasture. The way the parasites spread is when other llamas eat in the same area where the last animal defecated and bring the eggs or the young parasite into their body.
The sure signs of a parasite in the digestive tract are a bloated animal that seems to be eating the same amount or more than usual, but is gradually losing weight. (Bloating can be noted by sight or by how the animal moves, not by checking in front of the croup). If there is ever a suspicion that there are parasites in llamas, the easiest and quickest thing to do is to send a fresh fecal sample to the vet for analysis.
Animals on pasture that are moved a lot, housed with other species, or on pasture near a wilderness area should be treated for parasites with an oral or injectable worming medicine. The advantage of an oral worming medicine is that it targets the parasites in the digestive tract. An injectable worming shot targets parasites living outside of the digestive tract, and can be just as important.
More information is being studied that suggests targeted deworming among small ruminant herds, or only worming animals that show positive test results, may be desirable. Parasites can become resistant to wormers over time. There has also been some research that suggests worming medicine can be harmful to an array of good soil organisms on the pasture when the medication comes out of the body in the fecal matter.
Llamas that are uncomfortable or sick are not fun to be around. A healthful llama is a happy llama! Please watch for any changes in your llama's behavior or body condition to effectively assess health of the individual and the herd.
- To see if your animal is underweight, use a quick method of feeling with your hand in front of the croup on the animal's backbone. Look for more than a 50-degree angle.
- If you have an underweight animal, look at the age, condition of feeding ground (pasture/nutrient content), hay quality, and if parasites are suspected, get a fresh fecal sample to the vet for analysis!
- Things to keep in mind are to monitor for parasites regularly, and to not hesitate to supplement regular grass or hay feed with grains ranging from processed llama pellets to whole oats and beet pulp.
Some excellent resources:
- Storey’s Complete Guide to Llamas
- The Complete Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman
- Robert J. Van Saun
The last article is based on goat and sheep parasites. When reading about other small ruminant species in texts, you must remember that some parasites are shared while others are not. The best information found is specific to the camelid family. Knowing how similar species relate to your camelids helps to expand ideas to what other farmers are dealing with when it comes to nutrition and pasture health.