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How to Conduct An Alpaca Health Examination

Updated April 10, 2020

Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of alpacas with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until an alpaca is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy alpaca look and feel like, but familiarizing an alpaca 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.

An Exam Every Six To Eight Weeks Means Daily Observations

Our recommendation to conduct routine health examinations every six to eight weeks must be done in conjunction with daily observations.  Caregivers should be trained to observe animals both for behaviors that are abnormal for the species and also behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species and their warning signs.  Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress into more serious situations.

Residents With Challenging Backgrounds

Close daily observation can be difficult with certain individuals or groups who come from challenging backgrounds. They may be more likely to hide signs of illness or injury, or may not allow you to come close enough to them to thoroughly assess their well being on a regular basis. Challenging backgrounds may include individuals who are not socialized, have lived feral, or were abused or malnourished. If you care for individuals who came from a challenging background, it is imperative to make time to foster a bond of trust so careful observation is possible. A monthly health exam is recommended for these individuals until they exhibit signs that they feel safe and you are confident that close daily observation is possible.

New Resident? Conduct An Intake Examination!

If you are conducting an initial health examination on a new resident, check out our intake examination resource to learn about what you should check for and document!

Problem Signals

Due to alpacas’ typically thicker coats, alpacas require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that you may not notice through a cursory observation. Alpacas 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 alpaca 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

Ask An Expert

Prior to regularly conducting alpaca health examinations, you should have a veterinarian or compassionate care expert give you hands-on training in order to be the best alpaca health advocate possible. Being trained to rapidly distinguish healthy conditions from abnormalities can be crucial in early health problem detection and effective treatment!

In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the alpaca. 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 alpaca’s history.

Safety First!

Alpacas can become ill with disease that is transmissible to humans. It’s very important to wear gloves when conducting health examinations!

It can be easier to conduct the examination after the alpaca has eaten or as they’re tucking in for the evening as they tend to be less fussy. Generally, alpacas 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 alpaca’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 an alpaca’s health.

Stressed Alpaca?

If an alpaca faces you, raises their head, and sweeps their ears back, this is a sign of assertive defensiveness. In cases like these, it’s important to make casual contact gently with the back of your hand while avoiding eye contact if it seems appropriate. This can help calm a stressed alpaca. If they react poorly to touch, leave their immediate area and give them time to calm down. Alpacas don’t tend to kick often, but some do. Keep in mind that they can kick both outward like a cow and directly behind them! The safest place to be near the back of an alpaca is at their shoulder.

If necessary, you may have to have a second caregiver on hand to help manage the health examination or help restrain the alpaca with a halter. Once you have the alpaca calm and ready, conduct the following observations:

When In Doubt...

Unless you are a qualified veterinarian or have been trained to handle specific conditions, The Open Sanctuary Project strongly advocates that you promptly report any health concerns you find during the course of an exam to your veterinarian or care expert. Unless they’re in a life-threatening situation, you should be your resident’s advocate, not their doctor.

Check their weight and body condition

It’s important to keep regular measurements or estimates of an alpaca’s weight. If an alpaca has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or other parasites. If an alpaca 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 alpacas.

Check their head

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.

Check their eyes

The alpaca 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.

Check their ears

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.

Check their nose

The alpaca’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.

Check their mouth

You shouldn’t be able to hear an alpaca 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 alpaca should have between 10-30 breaths per minute. A breathing-impaired alpaca 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 alpacas 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 alpacas, 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. An alpaca’s jaw should not be swollen or enlarged, which could be a symptom of Bottle Jaw. If an alpaca has particularly bad breath, it could be symptomatic of an infection and require deeper examination.

Check their digestive system

It’s critical to check the alpaca for stomach ailments, or symptoms of bloat, which is rare in alpacas compared to goats and sheep but still life-threatening. If an alpaca 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 an alpaca 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 alpaca moving while waiting for veterinary intervention; bloat can be a life-threatening condition. If concerned about the digestion of the alpaca, use a stethoscope on their left rear flank and listen for stomach contractions. A healthy alpaca should have 3-4 contractions in a minute of listening. They should also have a resting heart rate between 60-80 beats per minute.

Check their skin

Check around the alpaca’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 alpaca 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.

Check their joints

It’s important to check the alpaca’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 alpaca 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 alpacas as they get older.

Check their nails and feet

Ensure that the alpaca’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 alpacas are born with “screw claw”, which causes their nail to curve under. These alpacas require more frequent nail trimming to prevent injury.

Check their rear end

The alpaca’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, be sure to check their vulva for any scabbing or discharge.  If a male alpaca is struggling to urinate, it can be a sign of urinary blockage and require treatment.

Check their poop

It’s important to monitor an alpaca’s poop recognize what healthy alpaca droppings look like. Healthy alpaca 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 alpacas at a regular interval to check for internal parasites. Conversely, ensure that the alpaca 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 alpaca urine.

Isolate if necessary

If you notice that an alpaca 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 alpaca in order to protect the rest of the herd from a potentially infectious disease.  However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once an alpaca 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 alpaca who is isolated from their herd may become more stressed, which could delay recovery.  Depending on the health concern, separating the alpaca 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 an alpaca and what good alpaca health looks like, you’ll be an excellent alpaca 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 alpaca health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable alpaca health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!

SOURCES:

Treating Bloat In Llamas | Shagbark Ridge Llamas

Llama Medical Management | International Llama Association

Recommended Practices In Caring For Llamas & Alpacas | Camelid Community

Barber’s Pole Worm In Alpacas | Criagenesis

Foot Health And Management In Alpacas | Royal Veterinary College

Urinary Blockage In Llamas And Alpacas | Penn State

What Are The Treatments For Colic In Llamas? | Moms (Non-Compassionate Source)

Physical Examination and Conformation [Of Llamas] | Veterian Key (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on June 23, 2020

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