If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special alpaca residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of alpacas at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided.
When it comes to feeding the individual alpacas in your care, you may be overwhelmed initially by the number of choices and amount of information out there. By first understanding what an alpaca’s essential needs are, you can make informed decisions about how to feed and supplement your resident alpacas, and have the knowledge to back up your choices.
A Lesson In Alpacas
Let’s first take a quick peek at alpacas, where they are from, and how they came to be! Alpacas are part of the camelid family along with llamas, vicunas, guanacos, and camels. Alpacas are domesticated animals, originally bred from wild vicuna during or possibly even before the Inca civilization. Wild vicunas still live in areas of South America. Due to sparse forage, alpacas have adapted to consume forage that is coarser than is healthy for many resident species. However, they generally prefer grass. They may browse as well if it is available. Though their llama cousins lean towards enjoying super fibrous grass and browse, alpacas generally prefer something with a bit more moisture and softness. Alpacas are often grouped with ruminants. However, alpacas are NOT ruminants and should not be cared for as such. We will talk more about this in the next section. Now that we’ve covered some basic information, let’s take a look at some digestive facts!
An Introduction To Alpaca Nutrition: What Should You Know?
Before going further, let us first address how camelids and ruminants are different. This is important as they have different needs. It isn’t uncommon to hear someone refer to alpacas, or camelids as a whole, as “ruminants”. No one in the camelid family (camels, llamas, alpacas, vicunas, guanacos) are ruminants. They have both behavioral and physiological differences when it comes to food.
Here are a few examples of how camelids and ruminants are digestively different:
- Alpacas can digest coarse forage more effectively than many ruminants. They adapted to areas with sparse vegetation and can get more from less. However, when given the option, alpacas will often opt for greener, softer plants, though the opposite is true for llamas.
- Alpacas have a 3-chambered stomach that is resistant to bloat.
- Ruminants have a 4 chambered stomach that is susceptible to bloat.
- Alpacas also differ from ruminants in terms of their susceptibility to certain parasitic and infectious diseases, some which can affect the digestive system.
And there are more differences! Due to certain commonalities, they are referred to as “pseudoruminants”, meaning false ruminants. We prefer to just call camelids camelids. They aren’t fake ruminants, they have their own system, similar but distinct from ruminants. They have different digestive and nutritional needs, which is a rather big difference. So going forward, we will simply say “camelids” instead of pseudoruminants.
The main distinguishing factor between ruminants and camelids is their stomach, or perhaps more appropriately, the number of compartments in their stomachs. Ruminants have a single stomach with four chambers while camelids have three, as mentioned above. They do share commonalities like chewing cud but are still quite distinct from one another. Let’s move on and look at some helpful information for better understanding what an alpaca resident’s nutritional needs are.
Here are just a few dietary points that caregivers should know:
- A diet low in forage is sure to cause a host of health problems. Alpacas should have continuous access to forage. This promotes good digestive health!
- Access to lush pasture grasses, legume hays, and other food sources with high sugar or protein content should be limited and monitored.
- While they are designed to continuously digest a lot of fiber, the smaller capacity of an alpaca’s stomach is not conducive to breaking down singular large meals at a single time.
- Alpacas regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before swallowing again as part of the digestive process.
- Concentrates should only be used to supplement an alpaca resident’s diet in certain cases involving health conditions, pregnancy and lactation status, dental health, underweight residents or senior alpacas struggling to keep weight on, or growing alpacas.
- Avoid anything that contains molasses or cereals! Grains should only be given as directed by your veterinarian. A diet high in concentrates can lead to a number of serious health issues. If supplementing grain, be sure to purchase pelleted commercial food for llamas and alpacas!
- If alpacas aren’t provided with large amounts of forage throughout the day, it can have psychological effects in addition to physical ones. Without the ability to perform this natural behavior, alpacas can become bored and frustrated, greatly affecting their well-being.
- Additionally, alpacas are selective feeders, using their split prehensile lips to select what they consider the tastiest bits of forage when they graze and browse.
- Alpacas will browse a bit if they need to but, generally speaking, are more often grazers.
So now that you have had a brief glimpse into their dietary needs, let’s look at the specific nutrients that an alpaca needs to be healthy:
Building Blocks: What Do Alpaca Need?
It probably doesn’t surprise you that carbohydrates are generally the biggest part of an alpaca resident’s diet.
But not all carbohydrates should make up an alpaca resident’s diet. There are structural and non-structural carbohydrates. While carbohydrates can be broken down into fiber, starches, and sugars, fiber (straw, hay, and grass) is definitely the carbohydrate alpaca’s need in a greater quantity. Sugars and starches can cause health issues if consumed in higher quantities, so it’s important to be sure camelid residents don’t consume a diet containing high levels of these.
In most situations, grazing (ideally browsing) is sufficient, along with a recommended mineral supplement. Hay and pasture should be analyzed for mineral, protein, and sugar content in order to safely meet the needs of your residents. Too much of the above can result in serious health issues, as can a deficit in required protein and vitamins and minerals. Like a number of other resident species, a lush spring pasture can prove too much for alpaca residents and cause issues.
Not only does forage provide the necessary crude fiber an alpaca needs, it also prevents them from boredom and psychological distress, as they should spend much of the day grazing. Diets low in crude fiber and high in grains cause gastric ulcers and aren’t recommended unless the individual has higher nutritional needs. Even then, they should still have dry fiber as a large part of their diet. Of course, a veterinarian should be consulted when developing a plan for an individual. If some grains are recommended, be sure to purchase pelleted grains designed specifically for llamas and alpacas.
Let’s Talk Forage!
It is important to know that, while many alpacas in the US and Canada and many other places graze where they are kept, they may nibble shrubs and tree leaves. Providing opportunities to browse in addition to grazing can provide a diet closer to those where they originate. Though alpacas may just ignore the browse if they have access to grass- it’s more of a llama thing. Alpacas need forage for the base of their diet, but how much? Ideally, the correct balance of forages alone are sufficient for an alpaca resident. However this has a lot to do with the nutritional quality of the hay and/or pasture grass. And it isn’t uncommon that they will need some supplementation to ensure they are getting everything they need.
While there is some variation in estimates, there is general agreement that an alpaca needs 1.5% of their body weight in forage daily. You should always speak to your veterinarian for their suggestions. When an ideal percentage is acquired from your veterinarian, you can calculate the amount of forage by multiplying an alpaca resident’s weight by the percentage of recommended forage. For example, if Ellie weighs 140lbs and requires 1.5% of her body weight in forage, then in order to get the amount, you simply perform the following equation: 140lbs x 1.5% (140lbs x 0.015) = 2.1lbs
Or in metric: 64 kg x 0.015 = 952 g.
Pasture grass should be tested for sugar, protein, and mineral content as the results will help guide you in the right direction. This is about safety, as too much or too little of some components can cause health issues, requiring limited grazing or vitamin and mineral supplementation.
Grasses that are grown as pasture may become weather-leached when they reach maturity, resulting in reduced digestible energy, protein, as well as soluble carbohydrates, carotene, and other minerals. The type of grass and location or season in which it is grown may also affect nutritional quality. There are two main types of grasses: cool and warm season varieties. The cool season grasses tend to mature at slower rates, and therefore, their overall quality also tends to deteriorate less rapidly.
Grass hays are generally better than alfalfa because of the potential for excess protein and calcium intake; this can cause hypercalcemia and other issues in residents. There is a debate on the provision of alfalfa to alpacas for this reason. However, that isn’t to say alfalfa can’t be fed at all. Mixing smaller amounts of alfalfa with grass hay is often fine (depending on the resident) and adding alfalfa to certain residents with additional protein requirements may be beneficial.
There are many types of grass hays with different nutritional values. The crude protein levels in grass hays have a wide range. More mature grass hays may not have enough protein to meet the needs of residents, requiring additional sources, possibly from alfalfa. Additionally, the area it is grown in, what season it is harvested, whether it is a first, second, or third cutting, and whether it is a cool or warm variety of grass all impact the nutritional content. Cool grasses are grown in temperate regions and include timothy, orchard, and fescue. Overall, these have a little higher level of digestibility and crude protein. Warm grasses are grown in tropical and subtropical environments and include bahama, bahia, and dallis grass.
Alfalfa nutritional content will vary as well, with some being lower or higher in protein. Keep a watch out if the alfalfa has a lot of rich leaves, as this can cause them to selectively eat just the leaves, potentially resulting in an undesired outcome for the resident. This is why all forage intended for resident consumption should be analyzed. Otherwise, you are just guessing and residents may not get their nutritional needs met.
As previously mentioned, alpacas may browse a bit in addition to grazing. Browse includes shrubs, bushes, and trees, and really any woody plant. Browse can vary in nutritional content and can be difficult to analyze if it grows naturally in their outdoor living spaces. If you have a good amount of browse available, you can follow your residents to see what they choose and then gather a sample for analysis. However, it is unlikely your residents will eat a lot of browse if there is grass and good hay available. Care should be taken to prevent access to any plants that may be toxic to alpaca residents. Although they aren’t as browse oriented as llamas, supplementing browse in a grass only pasture can allow for natural selective feeding behaviors, which can help create an alpaca-centered feeding program and environment.
Protein For Alpacas
Alpacas (healthy adults) require 10-12 percent protein, depending on their activity levels, life stage, and pregnancy status. Alpacas have the notable ability to internally recycle nitrogen (that is part of amino acids consumed in protein sources). This results in a lower need for protein in their diet. However, proteins are still important as they provide both essential and nonessential amino acids that alpacas need. How much of these amino acids an individual alpaca needs depends largely on their age, activity level, and whether they are pregnant or lactating.
As mentioned above, hays and pasture grass contain protein, so careful attention must be paid to the protein (and sugar) content of hays and grass. Legume hays, such as alfalfa, are generally significantly higher in protein and could cause health issues in resident alpacas if they consume too much. Your veterinarian may recommend some for certain individuals for health or growth-related reasons. Otherwise, a small handful as a treat now and then or mixing it with larger portions of grass hay can be an option for some residents.
Fat For Alpacas
Alpacas and llamas, being similar to ruminants, require dietary fat content to be carefully controlled, as fat can adversely disrupt the microbial populations in the fermentation vat. Supplement fat content should be below 4%.
Vitamins And Minerals
Salt should ideally be offered in loose form as alpacas don’t appear to lick as much, meaning they are less likely to get all the need from a block.
Free-choice salt feeding is the easiest method to provide salt, especially for alpacas eating pasture. If using a salt block, be sure to provide loose salt as well and be sure that it is protected from weather. Only a single source of salt should be provided, meaning you shouldn’t offer both white salt and trace mineral salt. This is particularly important if you are relying solely on trace mineral salts to meet nutritional requirements. Offering both may result in some residents only consuming white salt and not receiving the necessary minerals. They should always have access to water though it isn’t recommended to keep the salt right next to their water.
Generally, alpacas will do well with a Calcium:Phosphorus ratio of 1:2 to 2:1. The ratio must be carefully provided as an excess of one or deficient in one can result in serious health issues like bone loss or retarded growth. Vitamin D is important for the absorption of both minerals. Also, remember how alfalfa is generally way higher in Calcium than grass hays, up to 4-6 times higher? That could be a ratio of 6:1! Bones and teeth in alpacas have a ratio of 2:1. If you have to maintain a ration within 1:2 to 2:1 for a healthy alpaca resident.
Copper is an important trace mineral and intake must be carefully monitored as alpacas have a low threshold for Copper and can die from Copper toxicity and also cause issues if they are deficient in Copper. Generally the toxicity is due to an inappropriate ratio of Copper to a mineral called Molybdenum. Concentrations of Zinc, Sulphur, and Iron can all affect the availability of Copper for alpacas. Selenium is also important and levels of selenium in the soil at your sanctuary should be analyzed to prevent Selenium deficiency. You should discuss these, and other mineral requirements, such as Magnesium and Potassium, with your veterinarian for proper supplementation, as deficiency and excessive amounts of minerals are capable of causing serious health issues and even death.
In addition to the above minerals (and others), vitamins are important for good health. Vitamins A, B‘s, D, and E are all an important part of keeping your alpacas residents healthy and happy! For example, Vitamin A deficiency can result in slowed growth and lessened resistance to infection, among other things. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to bone issues, such as rickets. Vitamin E deficiency can result in eye, skin and liver issues. The B Vitamins, (B1, B2, B3, and B12) all similarly play a role in a healthy body, each important for different aspects of bodily health. Consulting with your veterinarian will help ensure your residents are receiving the proper amounts of each vitamin and mineral. They may suggest certain supplementation. However, you should never provide supplements without knowing the amounts of these nutrients contained in their diet and without consulting with your veterinarian!
Water For Alpacas
Water is an important part of keeping resident alpacas healthy. In general, alpaca residents will consume between 2-3 gallons of water a day. It is vital to their digestive health to drink lots of fluids, and serious complications can arise when their needs for water aren’t met. However, when faced with little access to water, (something their ancestors adapted to in the drier, arid regions in which they originated) they can go with less water without ill effect, for a time. However, alpaca residents should always have continuous access to clean water sources. It is advisable to have water heaters during freezing temperatures, as it allows continuous access to water and also encourages them to drink more. An alpaca may refuse to drink if the water is very cold or dirty. This can cause a number of health issues, in spite of their evolutionary adaptation.
Foods That Make Good Treats For Alpacas (And Which Don’t)
Treats can be an enriching (and yummy) experience for residents. Below is a list of safe treats and another list of foods to avoid. Remember: These are treats, and should be given sparingly! Too much of a new food at once can lead to an unbalanced digestive tract and cause health issues. The more sugar a treat contains, the more sparingly it should be given. An alpaca’s dental anatomy makes treats a potential choking hazard. To avoid this, you can slice them or shred them before offering treats.
We would recommend feeding only one handful-sized portion maximum per day.
Safe Treats For Alpacas
- Sweet Potato
- Fresh Green Beans
Do Not Feed Alpacas The Following!
- Animal products of any kind
- Cherries or other stone fruits
- Brassica (though this may vary between plants and specific parts of those plants)
- Potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant (any plant from the nightshade family)
- Sugary human food
- Lima beans
While this list isn’t exhaustive, it can certainly help you keep resident alpaca safe, healthy, and happy!
We hope you find this resource valuable in caring for your alpaca residents. Please contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.
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