Updated November 5, 2020
If you are planning on providing lifelong care for alpacas, either in a sanctuary or microsanctuary environment, the hands-on training you’ll need and the standard care practices you must develop for your residents are much more rigorous than what non-sanctuary camelid resources may have led you to believe! Taking in alpacas without having the appropriate skills and policies in place could threaten their health and well-being, as well as the health of other residents at your sanctuary.
This introductory resource is not intended to dissuade you from rescue, but merely provide a perspective on what a sanctuary must be able to commit to in order to provide the best life for an alpaca.
Alpaca Care That Should Be Taught By An Expert
Responsible alpaca care means being able to fully understand and perform safe handling and healthcare techniques, as well as being able to react rapidly and effectively in the event of an emergency. Anyone who is in charge of regularly providing care to alpacas should be taught the following techniques from a compassionate alpaca care expert or a qualified veterinarian.
- Performing an alpaca health examination: All of the alpacas in your care need to be regularly examined from their head to their feet in order to catch any health problems early on for successful treatment. An expert or veterinarian can give you hands-on training so you can give examinations quickly, efficiently, and with the least stress possible for the alpaca.
- Safely being around and handling an alpaca: There are a number of nuances that an expert must demonstrate for you in order to prevent potentially serious health and safety consequences from mishandling an alpaca or misjudging their behavior. Certain individual alpacas may require unique handling techniques, due to their size, personality, history of trauma, or health status.
- Understanding the safe range of joint motions in alpacas: When performing health examinations on alpacas, it’s important to check their leg and joint flexibility and check for signs of pain, infection, inflammation, or arthritis. You must have an expert demonstrate for you how to check the range of motion in their bodies without causing injury and teach you what a healthy alpaca looks and feels like. This way, you can be the best advocate possible for them if something feels or looks amiss.
- Evaluating an alpaca’s stomach: Stomach problems are unfortunately common in alpacas and can quickly cause death if left unmanaged. For this reason, you must learn how to evaluate an alpaca’s digestive system, and quickly discern between healthy and abnormal stomach operation in order to intervene quickly if something’s wrong.
- Evaluating an alpaca’s foot health: Alpacas can develop a number of foot problems throughout their lives, either as a result of overgrown nails, environmental problems, infection, or old age. Failing to identify alpaca foot issues early could lead to permanent injury and a greatly reduced quality of life for the individual alpaca.
- Evaluating an alpaca’s droppings: Abnormal alpaca droppings can be a warning sign that something is amiss in them, be it a problem with their nutrition, an illness, or a parasitic infection. It’s important to learn what healthy alpaca poop typically looks like for the individual alpacas in your care throughout the day so that abnormalities can be caught and evaluated early on. Early intervention for many alpaca health issues can be lifesaving.
- Trimming an alpaca’s nails: Safe nail trimming is a health essential for alpacas that someone at your sanctuary must be able to regularly perform. Improper technique could hurt or permanently injure an alpaca.
- Foot illness management in alpacas: Foot rot and other foot illnesses are common in alpacas. If left untreated, the illness could spread into an alpaca’s leg and cause permanent damage. Treatment is dependent on the kind of infection and how much its progressed into the alpaca’s foot. Failure to learn appropriate foot treatment techniques could potentially lead to greater health problems than the infection itself.
- Treating mites, flies, parasites, and lice in alpacas: Although it may seem straightforward to treat individuals for these problems, you should have someone demonstrate dosage and technique until you are fully comfortable with treatment (and know when not to treat for parasites to prevent resistant strains from propagating). Some alpacas may become seriously ill or die if they are exposed to too much pesticide or anti-parasitic medication. Flies around alpacas must also be managed with effective strategies, as they can spread serious diseases like pink eye.
- Having a plan for CL: CL is a highly infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans. You must be trained to handle this very common ailment appropriately and safely. Do you have space to establish a permanently separate CL-positive herd to protect the CL-negative residents at your sanctuary if necessary?
- Handling a bloated alpaca: You must learn exactly what to do if an alpaca is suffering from bloat or grain poisoning, including rapid evaluation and response. If an alpaca is exhibiting signs of extreme distress, you may have a limited time to administer lifesaving treatment. A veterinarian may not be able to come to you in time, so caregivers must receive training on what to look out for and how to intervene long before any emergencies.
- Administering oral and injectable medications and gastric intubation for alpacas: You must be shown how to safely administer oral medications to an alpaca without causing them undue stress or accidentally choking them, and must also be shown how to administer injectable medications. While oral medications are often preferred and administration is less stressful to both the alpaca and the human, there are instances when an injection is necessary, so you must learn how to administer properly. Gastric intubation (such as to intervene in cases of bloat or grain poisoning) absolutely must be taught by an expert. The threshold for lethal mistakes is very high due to their biology.
- Rapid intervention for urinary blockage: Male alpacas have a higher chance of developing stones. If an alpaca cannot urinate, they will die. You must be trained to know the signs of this condition and have a veterinary source for immediate treatment.
Necessary Practices For Responsible Alpaca Guardianship
In order to provide the best care possible for alpacas, you must have the proper policies and practices in place, in addition to providing them with the best environment and nutrition possible.
- Establishing regular record keeping policies for alpacas: Keeping detailed records of alpaca residents from intake until they leave your sanctuary is a crucial part of giving them the best healthcare as well as providing an extra layer of legal protection to your sanctuary in certain circumstances.
- Creating and following a new alpaca arrival protocol: Herd safety means following practical biosecurity and quarantine guidelines when you bring a new resident alpaca onto your sanctuary grounds, including evaluating newcomers for CL and Orf. Failing to have an appropriate intake process could pose a serious risk to your residents.
- Daily checkups for each individual: Although it does not have to be as rigorous as a health examination, each of the individual alpacas you take in must be visually looked over at least once a day (such as during feeding time) to watch out for early signs of illness or other health concerns. It is not responsible to take in alpacas and not be able to provide this minimum standard of care for each of them.
- Creating a fiber policy: If you’re caring for alpacas who have been bred for their fiber, you should create and abide by a fiber policy for your sanctuary. While many alpacas will need to be shorn each year, it’s important to assess each individual to determine how often they need to be shorn. What will you do with the fiber? Here’s what we’d suggest!
- Establishing a vaccine protocol: Talk to your veterinarian to see what vaccines they recommend based on your area. Many sanctuaries vaccinate for Rabies and Tetanus & Clostridium (also known as the CDT vaccine), but there may be other vaccines that should be included in your vaccine protocol. Be sure your veterinarian fully understands your mission and how the sanctuary functions. There are certain vaccines that might be recommended to most of their clients, but are not necessary for alpacas who will never breed or who spend most of their lives at the sanctuary rather than frequently going to exhibitions where they are exposed to many other animals with unknown backgrounds.
- Regular fecal testing of alpacas: Alpacas can fall victim to a host of dangerous ailments and diseases that may not present symptoms visibly until they’re too late to treat. You must create a fecal testing schedule and follow it for all alpacas in order to head off health challenges early on.
- Creating a plan for isolation or quarantine: If an alpaca becomes ill or injured and needs time away from the rest of your residents to heal or prevent the spread of disease, you will need an appropriate area reserved to isolate them. Without space to isolate an ill or injured resident, you risk the spread of disease or further injury to the individual.
What You Must Provide For Alpacas
Responsible alpaca care means making sure that their food, water, and shelter is provided and maintained to a high standard. Many alpaca setups are not designed with the alpaca’s best interest in mind and cannot be assumed to be an ideal living space for them. Similarly, the nutrition you provide for them should be considered in terms of what works best for them, rather than what’s easiest!
- Providing appropriate living spaces for alpacas: You must give alpacas an appropriate living space, with sunlight, clean air, appropriate temperature and humidity control, and alpaca-safe fencing. They should have a safe place to roam, browse on interesting safe plants, and enjoy enriching activities. Forcing alpacas to live in cramped, dark, muddy, dirty, icy, or dangerous conditions is unacceptable. You should never take in so many alpacas that they lack adequate personal space!
- Providing appropriate food, water, and supplementation for alpacas: You must feed alpacas a healthy diet suited to their individual needs. They need clean water that doesn’t freeze over in the winter, appropriate forage or hay, minerals, and, depending on their specific needs, nutritional supplementation. It’s unacceptable to knowingly feed them food that causes health problems or excessive weight gain. You must be willing to adjust their food and supplementation if an alpaca needs their diet modified to rectify health challenges as well.
- Regular cleaning and maintenance of alpaca living spaces: You must establish and follow a regular cleaning schedule for the area where alpacas live and sleep. Ignoring regular cleaning and bedding replacement can cause alpacas to develop a host of easily avoidable illnesses such as foot rot, parasites, or social challenges like bullying.
- Protecting residents from predators: It is unacceptable to create living spaces that do not offer responsible protection from regional predators. You must implement strategies to prevent predators from entering their living space and regularly review the effectiveness of your efforts. Familiarize yourself with the various predators in your area to assess whether or not certain residents should be closed in overnight for additional protection. Young crias are especially vulnerable, so it’s a good idea to close them into a safe space overnight until they get a bit bigger.
- Creating and maintaining indoor living spaces with rodent-proofing in mind: Just as you must protect your residents from predators, it is important to create indoor living spaces that discourage or make it difficult for rodents to take up residence in them. Mice and rats can not only potentially spread disease to residents, they can also cause safety issues by damaging electrical wires (which could result in a fire) or getting into insulation (and creating opportunities for residents to ingest insulation). Severe rat infestations can also result in physical harm to vulnerable residents such as young crias or individuals with mobility issues. Be sure to design the space so that any insulation and electrical wires are contained in such a way that rodents cannot access them, avoid (or regularly check) gaps that could easily be turned into a cozy nest, and make sure any supplies that may attract rodents are sealed in metal bins (especially food or sweetened minerals). Making the space completely “rodent-proof” likely is not possible since the space will be open for residents to come and go for at least a portion of the day, but you can take steps to make it less likely that they will build themselves a cozy home inside your residents’ home.
- Regular hardware disease mitigation: You need to keep alpacas safe from hardware disease by regularly checking their living spaces for potentially dangerous materials that they may ingest.
- Honoring the needs of younger or older alpacas: Alpacas that are very young or elderly have unique care needs that must be accommodated in order to thrive. You should not take in alpacas with special care requirements until you understand what they need and have an environment and policies in place for them!
- Providing appropriate veterinary care and medication for alpacas: When you give sanctuary to an alpaca, you are committing to providing them a high quality of life and individual care. Part of this means having a qualified veterinarian who understands alpaca care and is willing to treat health problems, manage pain, and provide compassionate end of life care when necessary. It is unacceptable to take in alpacas and deny them medical attention or withhold pain management.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything you must know and provide for alpacas in a sanctuary environment. Individual alpacas may have their own needs and challenges that require additional training and policies to give them the best life possible!