Updated June 15, 2020
Just like the nails on your hands and feet, alpacas have nails made out of the durable protein keratin on their feet! And just like us, this consistently growing material needs to be maintained for their health and comfort. In the wild, an alpaca would naturally wear down their nails by frequent walking on mixed terrain, but most sanctuary environments prevent them from exploring enough for this natural process to occur. Thus, it is our responsibility to trim their nails regularly for their wellbeing!
Depending on the individual and the environment, an alpaca could need their nails trimmed in a period ranging from once every six weeks to every six months, although older alpacas and less active individuals (including those with Arthritis) may need much more frequent trimming. Just like trimming your fingernails, properly trimming an alpaca’s nails should not be painful, though some alpacas may not prefer the position they must be in to properly assess and trim their nails!
Signs That It’s Time To Trim
The primary two purposes of trimming an alpaca’s nails are to give them an even, comfortable walking surface to step on, and to clean out accumulated dirt and debris that might have gotten caught on their footpads and under their nails in order to prevent infections.
The length of their nails is the primary point of concern in an alpaca’s foot maintenance. Unchecked, they will grow far past the alpaca’s soft footpad and begin to curl over on themselves, grow over their toe or spread out to the side of their feet, which can create painful walking conditions. If an alpaca seems to have difficulty or reluctance walking, check their feet. You might be far past due for a trimming by that point!
If possible, schedule your nail trimming after rain or snowfall in your area; an alpaca’s nails after a day in a wet pasture are much softer and easier to trim. If you’re in a dry climate, you could soak an area of pasture and have them spend time in the area, but be careful not to get their feet too muddy as you’ll just have more dirt to clean out!
You should wear gloves for the trimming process, as hand protection will make this process much easier and more comfortable for you, which will in turn make it more comfortable for the alpaca.
Carefully handle the alpaca so that you can access their feet, one at a time. This might require a second helper to keep the alpaca stabilized and calm, or using a safe rope harness if the alpaca is uncooperative about being handled. You should avoid standing directly behind them as a startled alpaca may try to kick you. Once they are willing, carefully lift their foot off the ground so you can assess the condition of their nails.
Gently pick up the alpaca’s foot, bending it along the natural motion of their knee. There’s a chance that the alpaca may fight you on this, especially if they aren’t used to handling. Make sure that they do not injure themselves by thrashing! You might have to lower their foot safely to the ground if they’re too upset and try again when they’re less stressed out. It can also be better to bend over or crouch when evaluating their foot so you do not have to lift their foot uncomfortably high. Once they’ve relatively calmly allowed you to hold their foot, use a brush to get any surface dirt off their feet and in between their nails. This will make identifying the parts of their feet much easier! Then, using a sterilized alpaca nail trimming tool or a sterilized pair of small shears, use the tip to carefully start cleaning out dirt and debris from the alpaca’s foot, especially dirt that’s been caked into the edges of their nails. It’s likely that there will be quite a bit in there to dig out!
Trimming The Nail
Trimming an alpaca’s nails is not too dissimilar in concept to trimming a cat’s or dog’s nails. Like cats and dogs, alpacas have a sensitive area made of soft tissue in the center of their nails known as the quick. Cutting the quick by accident can be painful and bloody, so it’s important to be very mindful about how much you trim.
Start your trimming by carefully cutting each side of the nail to follow the natural width and shape of their footpad, coming to a triangular point at the end of their nail. Always cut as conservatively as possible to avoid injury. Once you’ve shaped the sides of the nail, trim along the underside of the nail so that it’s even with their footpad. You don’t want the nail to dig into the ground past their pad in natural motion. Finally, carefully cut off a small amount of the tip of their nail which is furthest away from their feet. Be very mindful of the quick during this part of the trimming process and only cut off a tiny portion at a time.
Once you’ve completed all eight nails on all four feet, let them wander freely and evaluate their motion. Are they walking normally? Avoiding putting pressure on a foot or two? They’ll tell you through body language if your trimming requires a little more attention or adjustment for their comfort!
If You Cut Into The Quick
If you accidentally draw blood, apply an astringent like a styptic pencil, styptic powder (such as Quick Stop), alum, or witch hazel. You can also dip the wound in cornstarch or flour to encourage natural clotting. Lacking these tools, you can also use a piece of toilet paper as if you’d nicked yourself shaving! If the bleeding doesn’t stop, you can use the tip of your finger to apply pressure for up to a minute and repeating until any bleeding ends. If the alpaca continues to limp for days after a trimming mishap, contact a veterinarian immediately for an evaluation because their foot might be infected or require bandaging.
If The Nail Is Very Overgrown
If their nail is overgrown due to a lack of nail maintenance, it’s possible that the quick will have spread beyond the area you’d like to trim. In cases like these, you’ll likely have to spread out the trimming over a period of weeks, trimming a bit of nail at a time until the quick recedes enough to get their toenails on a fully level surface without causing injury. In severe overgrowth cases, consult a veterinarian or expert to evaluate options and appropriate care plans.
If You Trimmed A Alpaca’s Nails Very Unevenly
If you happened to do a very poor job trimming an alpaca’s nails to the extent that it impairs their mobility, contact your veterinarian for an evaluation. You don’t want to accidentally cause long-term damage with further correction attempts!
You’ll likely know right away if an alpaca is suffering from foot rot; their foot may stink like rotten eggs! Other symptoms of foot rot include swelling, lameness, discharge, and warm to the touch feet. Typically, foot rot manifests in wet seasons when an alpaca has frequently damp feet, or it could be a result of a zinc deficiency. Because foot issues can be caused by contagious bacteria, it’s important to isolate the individual, work with a veterinarian to diagnose the issue, and treat the illness soon as you find it. Foot rot should be handled by a veterinarian if you are not trained in its treatment!
Treatment involves having a care expert carefully dig out and trim all the soft, black “rotten” foot pad that can be safely removed. They may need their nails trimmed quite aggressively as well depending on the location of the infection. This process will be more prone to causing bleeding or pain, so it may take a few sessions to safely remove the rot. They will also need their trimmed foot scrubbed, foot rot medication applied to the afflicted areas, and possibly treated with a tetracycline antibiotic.
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