If you’re reading this resource, there are likely some special llama residents in your life who you’d like to provide the best possible care for! The compassionate lifelong care of llamas at animal sanctuaries starts with the food they’re provided.
When it comes to feeding the individual llama in your care, you may be overwhelmed initially by the number of choices and amount of information out there. By first understanding what a llama’s essential needs are, you can make informed decisions about how to feed and supplement your resident llamas, and have the knowledge to back up your choices.
A Lesson In Llamas
Let’s first take a quick peek at llamas, where they are from, and how they came to be! Llamas are part of the camelid family along with alpacas, vicunas, guanacos, and camels. Llamas are domesticated animals, originally bred from wild guanaco during or possibly even before the Inca civilization. Wild guanaco still live wild in areas of South America. Due to sparse forage, llamas have adapted to consume forage that is coarser than is healthy for many resident species. They like to browse as well, but this is often not available to them in captive environments. Llamas are often grouped with ruminants. However, llamas 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 Llama 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 llamas 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:
- Llamas can digest coarse forage more effectively than ruminants. In fact, when given the option, llamas will often choose more fibrous plants, though the opposite is true for alpacas.
- Llamas have a 3-chambered stomach that is resistant to bloat.
- Ruminants have a 4-chambered stomach that is susceptible to bloat.
- Llamas 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 a llama 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. Llamas 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 a llama’s stomach is not conducive to breaking down singular large meals at a single time.
- Llamas regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before swallowing again as part of the digestive process.
- Concentrates should only be used to supplement a llama resident’s diet in certain cases involving health conditions, pregnancy and lactation status, dental health, underweight residents or senior llamas struggling to keep weight on, or growing llamas.
- 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 llamas 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, llamas can become bored and frustrated, greatly affecting their well-being.
- Additionally, llamas are selective feeders, using their split prehensile lips to select what they consider the tastiest bits of forage when they graze and browse.
- That’s right; llamas are both browsers and grazers and appreciate access to browse, if possible.
So now that you have had a brief glimpse into their dietary needs, let’s look at the specific nutrients that a llama needs to be healthy:
Building Blocks: What Do Llamas Need?
It probably doesn’t surprise you that carbohydrates are generally the biggest part of a llama resident’s diet.
But not all carbohydrates should make up a llama 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 llama’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 llama residents and cause issues.
Not only does forage provide the necessary crude fiber a llama needs, it also prevents them from boredom and psychological distress, as they should spend much of the day browsing and 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 llamas in the US and Canada and many other places graze where they are kept, they are also browsers and will nibble shrubs and tree leaves. Providing opportunities to browse in addition to grazing can provide a diet closer to those where they originate.
While they consume quite a bit of dry fiber, there is a maximum amount they should consume daily. While there is some variation, some estimates range between 1.0- 1.3% of body weight and up to 1.8-2.0%. 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 dry fiber by multiplying a llama resident’s weight by the percentage of recommended dry fiber. For example, if Ellie weighs 240lbs and requires 1.5% of dry fiber in her diet then in order to get the amount, you simply perform the following equation: 240lbs x 1.5% (240lbs x 0.015) = 3.6lbs
Or in metric: 109 kg x 0.015 = 1633 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 llamas for this reason. However, that isn’t to say alfalfa can’t be fed at all. Smaller amounts mixed with grass hay are often fine (depending on the resident) and adding alfalfa to certain residents with additional protein requirements can be beneficial.
There are many types of grass hays with different nutritional values. The crude protein levels in grass hays have a particularly 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.
Interestingly, llamas and alpacas differ in their forage preferences, with llamas often choosing lower quality, coarser forage, whereas alpacas often choose softer, moister, higher quality forage when given the choice. Llamas are selective foragers, so providing a mix of pasture and mixed hays can allow them to express this natural behavior. However, this ALWAYS depends on the individual’s needs and may not be suitable for everyone.
As previously mentioned, llamas are browsers as well as grazers. Browse includes shrubs, bushes, and trees, and really any woody plant. When they are browsing, they often select leaves, twigs, and buds. 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. Care should be taken to prevent access to any plants that may be toxic to llama residents. Supplementing browse in a grass-only pasture can allow for natural selective feeding behaviors, which can help create a llama-centered feeding program and environment.
Protein For Llamas
Llamas (healthy adults) require 8-10 percent protein, depending on their activity levels, life stage, and pregnancy status. Llamas 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 the essential and nonessential amino acids that llamas need. How much of these amino acids an individual llama 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 llamas if they consume too much. Your veterinarian may recommend a certain amount for certain individuals for health or growth-related reasons. Otherwise, offering a small handful as a treat now and then or mixing it with larger portions of grass hay may be an option for some residents.
Fat For Llamas
Llamas and alpacas, 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 For Llamas
Salt should ideally be offered in loose form as llamas 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 llamas 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, llamas will do well with a Calcium:Phosphorus ratio of 1:2 to 2:1. The ratio must be carefully provided, as an excess or deficiency of either can result in serious health issues like bone loss or slowed 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 llamas have a ratio of 2:1. You have to maintain a ration within 1:2 to 2:1 for a healthy llama resident.
Copper is an important trace mineral and intake must be carefully monitored as llamas 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 llamas. 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 llama 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 Llamas
Water is an important part of keeping resident llamas healthy. In general, llama 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, llama 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. A llama may refuse to drink if the water is very cold. This can cause a number of health issues, in spite of their evolutionary adaptation.
Foods That Make Good Treats For Llamas (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. A llama’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 Llamas
- Sweet Potato
- Fresh Green Beans
Do Not Feed Llamas 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 llamas safe, healthy, and happy!
We hope you find this resource valuable in caring for your llama residents. Please contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.
Camelid Nutrition | VetFolio (Non-Compassionate Source)
Camelids Are Not Ruminants | Zoo And Wild Animal Medicine (Non-Compassionate Source)
Feed Analysis: It’s All About Energy | PennState Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Which One, Loose Or Block Salt Feeding? | PennState Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Challenges Of Feeding Llamas And Alpacas! | Rocky Mountain Alpaca And Llama Associations (Non-Compassionate Source)
Feeding Camelids | Llamas Of Atlanta (Dr. LaRue Johnson) (Non-Compassionate Source)