Updated April 10, 2020
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of llamas with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a llama is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy llama look and feel like, but familiarizing a llama with human handling might help them stay more calm in stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Due to llamas’ typically thicker coats, llamas require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that you may not notice through a cursory observation. Llamas are also generally quite stoic and won’t show pain or distress until the symptoms prevent them from hiding it. By paying regular attention to the herd, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss. A sick, injured, or otherwise distressed llama may:
- Avoid contact more often than they used to
- Change their daily schedule or general behavior
- Have labored breathing, coughing, sneezing or a constantly open mouth
- Shake or tilt their head
- Be immobile, inactive or unresponsive to your approach
- Be stretched out or kicking at their stomachs
- Be sitting far more often than usual
- Avoid or be rejected by the rest of the herd
- Be stamping their feet
- Grind their teeth frequently
- Have a limp in their step or avoid putting weight on one of their legs
- Have unusual or abnormal droppings including diarrhea, blood in stool, or worms
- Be less hungry or thirsty, or drink water excessively
- Have an abnormally strong odor
- Have an internal body temperature beyond the range of 99.5-102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Have pale skin, mucous membranes or a swollen jaw
- Frequently change their position between standing and sitting
- Lose a significant amount of wool without apparent reason
- Be reluctant or averse to urinating or urinating frequently
- Show signs of incoordination or weakness
Conducting The Exam
In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the llama. Generally, the examination should begin at their head, working your way back and down. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case a veterinarian needs the llama’s history.
It can be easier to conduct the examination after the llama has eaten or as they’re tucking in for the evening as they tend to be less fussy. Generally, llamas are quite protective about sensitive parts of their body, so it may require a more gentle, patient touch to fully examine them compared to ruminants like sheep. Before stepping into their living space, you should take note of the llama’s behavior. Are they acting differently than they usually do? How are they getting along with fellow herdmates? These clues can say a lot about a llama’s health.
If necessary, you may have to have a second caregiver on hand to help manage the health examination or help restrain the llama with a halter. Once you have the llama calm and ready, conduct the following observations:
It’s important to keep regular measurements or estimates of a llama’s weight. If a llama has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or other parasites. If a llama is mature and has gained a large amount weight in a short time, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them, especially with alfalfa, treats, and snacks. Obesity-related complications can regularly lead to dangerous conditions and death in llamas.
How are they holding their head? It’s best if they’re holding it up on their own volition. If they’re shaking, hunching, or tucking their head, this can be a sign of illness or injury. Check their head for abscesses, which could be a symptom of Caseous Lymphadenitis, which is highly contagious and requires quarantine and intervention.
The llama should have bright, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, constantly blinking, or crusty eyes indicates likely illness or injury. The above symptoms could be signs of pink eye, which is highly contagious to other animals and humans. Their pupils should be about the same size and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal). If you suspect their eyelid coloration is amiss, you could try evaluating this using the FAMACHA system (after receiving certification from a qualified veterinarian) for reference. Many have reported success using this goat and sheep resource for their camelids. If they are excessively pale, it could be a sign of anemia.
Their ears can have a modest amount of earwax or debris in them, but should be clear of any ear mites. Excessively sticky, yellow, or odorous earwax needs addressing. You can use a gauze pad to clear out excess earwax or to sample potential ear mites.
The llama’s snout should be free of any discharge, fluid, crustiness, or blood. Their nose should be soft and wet, and not cracked. An excessively runny or blocked nose could be a symptom of an upper respiratory infection.
You shouldn’t be able to hear a llama breathe in ideal circumstances, but you should be able to see their nostrils flare. Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, sneezy, whistling, or squeaky. Generally, a mature llama should have between 10-30 breaths per minute. A breathing-impaired llama might have lungworms, a serious and potentially deadly infection in their respiratory system. They should not have a dry cough. Many of these symptoms could be a result of pneumonia which llamas are highly susceptible to. Abnormalities should be immediately reported to your veterinarian. If they’re reluctant to eat, they might have a problem with one or more of their teeth that needs to be managed (especially in male llamas, which have sharp canines which grow until they’re around 8 years old). Now take a look in their mouth. There should not be any any sores, abscesses, or scabs in their mouth, which can be a sign of Sore Mouth. A llama’s jaw should not be swollen or enlarged, which could be a symptom of Bottle Jaw. If a llama has particularly bad breath, it could be symptomatic of an infection and require deeper examination.
It’s critical to check the llama for stomach ailments, or symptoms of bloat, which is rare in llamas compared to goats and sheep but still life-threatening. If a llama has a rubber ball-like tightness to the touch in their belly, is grinding their teeth, is straining to poop, is kicking at their abdomen, has difficulty breathing, or are stretching themselves out, this is a sign of bloat. If you are at all concerned that a llama might have bloat, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible and administer extra strength anti-gas medication. In cases like these, it’s crucial to keep the llama moving while waiting for veterinary intervention; bloat can be a life-threatening condition. If concerned about the digestion of the llama, use a stethoscope on their left rear flank and listen for stomach contractions. A healthy llama should have 3-4 contractions in a minute of listening. They should also have a resting heart rate between 60-90 beats per minute.
Check around the llama’s entire body to ensure healthy skin, parting their wool where necessary. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the individual’s body, not just the those included in this list. This thorough section of the exam is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed.Their skin should not have lice, mange, itchiness, mites, nits, lumps, cuts, cysts, bruises, gangrene, larvae, maggots, dry patches, blisters, or pressure sores. Abscesses on their body could be a symptom of Caseous Lymphadenitis. Their hair should be shiny, and their skin should be bright and not tough. Their hair should not be standing on end. Ensure they do not have any patchy wool loss or loss of pigmentation in their wool, which could be a sign of parasites or a mineral (especially copper) deficiency. Check their tail for hair loss and parasites as well. If the llama has enough wool that it begins to negatively affect them in summertime heat, schedule a shearing as soon as you can to avoid heat exhaustion.
It’s important to check the llama’s joints in their legs and shoulders for swelling or tenderness. They should not be warmer than the rest of their body. Ensure that the llama doesn’t have pain when they move their joints. There should be no cracking or crunching sounds when they move, and they shouldn’t be avoiding putting weight on any of their joints in particular. Joint inflammation could be a sign of arthritis, which is prevalent in llamas as they get older.
Ensure that the llama’s nails are a reasonable length and free of cracks, heat, swelling, debris, or abscesses. Any of these symptoms can cause lameness, discomfort, and could possibly contribute to infections and further damage. They should be able to put their full weight on their feet and they shouldn’t limp or walk on their pasterns. If they are limping, check their toes for uncomfortable debris, parasites, or infection. If their nails are overgrown, schedule a trimming as soon as you can. Certain llamas are born with “screw claw”, which causes their nail to curve under. These llamas require more frequent nail trimming to prevent injury.
The llama’s butt under their tail should be relatively clean. It shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty or bloody. Ensure that it doesn’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, or other parasites. Make sure that it isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you should consult with a veterinarian. Check their udders and ensure that they are not hot, swollen, painful, or tough, which can be a symptom of Mastitis and requires treatment. When checking a female llama, be sure to check their vulva for any scabbing or discharge. If a male llama is struggling to urinate, it can be a sign of urinary blockage and requires treatment.
It’s important to monitor a llama’s poop and to recognize what healthy llama droppings look like. Healthy llama poop is formed in small, well-formed pellets and is not runny but easily broken apart. If it’s poorly formed, watery, strong smelling, or bloody, it could be a sign of diarrhea, parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. If their poop looks like a “cow pie”, this could be an indication of parasitic malabsorption, eosinophilic enteritis, or Johne’s disease. If you’re particularly concerned by a dropping, you can bring it into your veterinarian for analysis, though you should consider fecal testing healthy-seeming llamas at a regular interval to check for internal parasites. Conversely, ensure that the llama has regular bowel movements, as they are prone to constipation. Their urine should be clear to deep yellow, but not very dark and concentrated. There should be no white, or chalky sediment in llama urine.
If you notice that a llama is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to isolate the llama in order to protect the rest of the herd from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once a llama is showing symptoms, the other residents in the herd have already been exposed. In these instances, you will need to weigh what is in the best interest of all of your residents. A sick llama who is isolated from their herd may become more stressed, which could delay recovery. Depending on the health concern, separating the llama with a calm companion might be a good compromise.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a llama and what good llama health looks like, you’ll be an excellent llama health ally in no time!
Writing It All Down
As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your llama health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable llama health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!
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