Camels may not be the first species you think of when you think of a farmed animal sanctuary. However, if you are reading this, this probably means you are caring for or considering caring for a camel resident at your sanctuary! Sadly, camels are exploited for their flesh, milk, coat, and skin and used for racing, riding, and carrying heavy loads. If you find yourself in the role of Someone who provides daily care, specifically for animal residents at an animal sanctuary, shelter, or rescue. for camel residents, you may be at a loss of where to start. While this resource isn’t an exhaustive guide for all aspects of caring for camel residents, it provides an introduction to camel care for rescues and sanctuaries.
Let’s Talk About Camels
Camels are in the camelid family, along with llamas and alpacas! There are new world and old world camelids. New world camelids, in addition to llamas and alpacas, include two other wild camelids, the vicuna and the guanaco. There are three species of old-world camels, the dromedary camel (one hump) and the Adapted over time (as by selective breeding) from a wild or natural state to life in close association with and to the benefit of humans Bactrian camel (two humps). The third species is the wild Bactrian camel, who is genetically distinct from their domesticated counterpart. Bactrian camels have shaggier coats, can reach heights up to 6 feet or more at the shoulder, and weigh around 1,300 – 1,800 pounds (various sources list the maximum weight between 1500-2200 pounds)! Dromedary camels are leaner, reaching weights around 800-1,300 pounds. Terminology-wise, a bull is the male of the species, while females are While "cows" can be defined to refer exclusively to female cattle, at The Open Sanctuary Project we refer to domesticated cattle of all ages and sexes as "cows.", with the young being calves.
Camelids Are Not Ruminants!
Camels have 3-chambered stomachs, are foregut fermenters, and chew their Food matter that returns from the first stomach compartment back to the mouth for further chewing or “ruminate.” Because they “ruminate,” and encyclopedias define ruminants as animals that chew their cud, they are often categorized as ruminants along with goats, sheep, and cows. This has led to a lot of misunderstandings. Camelids are only ruminants in the sense of how the encyclopedia defines part of the digestive process.
However, camels (llamas, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos) are camelids, with many notable differences from goats, sheep, and cows. Ruminants have a 4-chambered stomach; camelids have a 3-chambered stomach. While there are certain similarities in some aspects of digestion, several differences make them distinct. And this distinction has a big impact on care needs. Camelids actually diverged from ruminants (cows, goats, and sheep) on the evolutionary scale millions of years ago. The distinction is important because physical, physiological, and behavioral differences result in different care needs.
Did you know that kangaroos are also foregut fermenters with multichambered stomachs?
There can be problems when camelids are categorized as ruminants, along with cows, sheep, and goats. For example, if a camel is listed as a ruminant under governmental regulation, they can be affected by health regulations that affect cows even though a camel may not even be able to contract the disease the regulation is about, though some diseases can affect both ruminants and camelids, or even camelids and horses!
Now that we’ve had some fun camel trivia, let’s move on to some important information if you are contemplating providing care for camel residents:
Considerations For Taking In Camel Residents
If you find yourself giving thought to taking in a camel resident, there are some things you will want to consider first.
- Caring for camel residents may require special permits or may not even be allowed on your land, depending on local zoning ordinances.
- Camels can make some…interesting sounds. Consider whether sounds might carry to a nearby neighbor and cause any disruption. You don’t want to deal with an unhappy neighbor!
- Camels require specialized care. Do you have the appropriate facilities, experience, and knowledge to care for camel residents properly? Can you access an expert? Is there a vet that can provide care for them?
- Camels are social species and should ideally have other camels as companions. This isn’t always possible. Will you be able to provide them with the companionship they need? (See social needs below!)
- Transporting camels will require vehicles/trailers that can accommodate their height.
- In the US, some interstate travel requires camels to have a health certificate from a veterinarian and negative tests for tuberculosis and brucellosis. There may be similar requirements in other countries.
Living Spaces For Camels
Camels are happiest with ample safe space to roam and explore. Like all residents, camels require shade, fresh water access, and appropriate indoor and outdoor living spaces to keep them out of the elements. What their The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests. ends up exactly looking like could vary quite a bit depending on your climate, resources, and topography!
Indoor Living Spaces
While camels are generally capable of handling fairly extreme hot and cold weather, providing them with protective living spaces that promote health and well-being is still necessary. We want residents to be comfortable, not struggling. In areas that are warm year-round, a four-sided indoor living space may not be necessary (Unless predation is an issue in your area). A three-sided structure that protects residents from prevailing winds and rains and provides shade may be adequate in warmer areas.
Like other camelids, camels grow warm, wooly coats in cooler weather. If you are transporting a new camel resident from an area with a different climate, be sure they have the appropriate coat for the weather in your area. An ill-adapted camel resident may need temporary added protection or assistance in shedding their coat. Camels will generally shed much of their coat without assistance, though they may need help in some instances in the form of brushing, pulling, or shearing. Brushing can also be a good opportunity to spend time and get to know a resident!
Among other things, height is a key consideration when providing appropriate indoor living spaces and outdoor covered spaces for camel residents. Camels can measure around 6ft…at just their shoulder level! The important elements for any structure are:
- Appropriate height
- Ventilation (but not a drafty space)
- Safe access for caregivers
- Secure gates and latches
- Ample space for comfortably moving around, laying down, and preventing social conflict
- Non-slip cushioned flooring
- Protection from predation
Dirt or sand-covered flooring or another slip-resistant material is important for camel living spaces since slips and falls could lead to torn ligaments and joint damage. If your floor is concrete, you should layer half a foot of dirt onto the concrete floor or use rubber mats if necessary. Be sure to consider cleaning ability when putting in flooring. Bare concrete and hardwood floors are not acceptable for areas where residents must stand or lay down for long periods of time. However, providing some textured substrate like cement in a small portion of their living space can help keep toenails nice and trim. Just be sure this area is a slip-free zone!
Ideally, you should provide a lot of dry and clean straw in a camel’s indoor living space. Though camels are hardier than many species, offering them extra bedding material in colder weather is still important. You must remove and replace all wet and soiled bedding to prevent serious health risks to camels. There are bedding options other than straw, such as camel-safe wood shavings or sand.
If your sanctuary is located in an area that experiences extremely high temperatures and humidity, straw bedding should be minimized as it doesn’t allow their bodies to dissipate heat and interferes with body temperature regulation. Sand or soil would be more appropriate in this case. Providing misters in extremely high temperatures can also be helpful for camel residents.
If using sand, you must ensure you can still keep it clean and dry. If feeding over sandy ground, lay a mat under where they access their food to prevent them from ingesting the sand.
Also, we recommend double latch gates and doors to avoid accidental “escapes” as camels can manipulate objects fairly well with their flexible, prehensile lips!
Outdoor Living Spaces
Camel residents should have ample room to move about and lay down inside and have access to a dynamic outdoor space that allows them to move freely, stretch their legs in a run if they like, and explore. Camels are built to move large distances over a single day in their search for food. So the bigger the space, the better. This may be different for ill, injured, or senior camels.
Camels appreciate a nice dust/sand bath, so providing this would be a great start to an engaging living space. When creating an outdoor living space for camel residents, really consider who they are as a species, as well as who they are as individuals. Check out our resource on animal-centered design for more information and inspiration! Adding different sensorial and topographical elements can positively impact a resident’s well-being. Ensure that their outdoor living space has good drainage and access to dry ground in the event of rain. A large mound of sand can be provided for standing if there are wet or soggy areas to avoid.
Fencing For Camels
Some camel residents may not feel the need to leave their living space, but others may be driven by the desire to explore spaces, reach tasty browse, or simply move over larger areas. For this reason, it is important to ensure that fencing is solid, secure, and at an appropriate height to ensure a resident can’t easily “climb” over or push through a fence or gate. You don’t want injured or missing residents! Some places that care for camels recommend 5 to 6-foot fencing, while others find 4-foot fencing adequate. When building fencing, think carefully about the space you are working with, any potential temptations for camel residents to leave their outdoor living space, and the residents’ personality.
All fencing should be in good repair, without spacing that could result in residents catching their heads or limbs. Additionally, gates and fencing must be solid and secure. A camel resident leaning or pushing against a gate or fence can cause damage! Always remember that camels have prehensile, split lips that are excellent for opening gates and latches. We recommend a double latch-type gate system.
Check living spaces for sharp protrusions, nails, and screws to prevent external damage, and be sure to carefully check their surroundings for things like dropped coins, bits of metal, and string to prevent hardware disease.
Predator Proofing For Camels
While many of you may live in areas where predation isn’t a great concern, some of you may have sanctuaries where there are large predators such as big cats or wolves. Generally speaking, calves, sick or injured residents, or senior residents are at greater risk. Calves are at the highest risk. Check out this resource to learn about compassionate strategies to deter wildlife at your sanctuary.
Nutritional Needs Of Camels
Camels are browsers (though they can graze too), capable of enjoying a diverse diet that many other species might turn their nose up at. While they prefer moist, soft plants, their split lip and thick skin in their mouths allow them to eat rouch, thorny bits of plant material and brush too. Leaves, herbs, twigs, shrubs, and grass are all on the menu. This means that any trees or bushes within reach are likely to become camel snacks! It’s important to remove any toxic plants and protect any trees you don’t want on the menu but hope to keep around!
Frustratingly, much of the available information on camel diets is taken from ruminant diets, even though camels have different energy requirements and can get more nutrients from less regardless of any similarities in the digestive process. Part of the difficulty is that left to their own devices in their natural environment, the way they eat and what they consume will generally look much different than what is usually available and offered at a sanctuary. Ideally, camel residents would have a lot of room and a lot of browse to meet their nutritional needs.
At a sanctuary, camel residents will need a fibrous, bulky diet. If browse is unavailable (or there isn’t enough), hay should be the bulk of their diet. It is important to know that different hays provide different levels of nutrients and digestibility. This can affect the amount of hay residents eat daily and whether supplementation with commercial food pellets is necessary (and how much is required). The amount of “dry matter” they need daily depends on the nutritional makeup of the dry matter they are consuming. Because camels are adapted to get more nutrients from less, and most sanctuaries won’t be able to provide the plant matter native to their natural habitat, you should talk with your experienced veterinarian about the best type of hay in your area to feed camel residents. Certain hays, such as barley grass, have seeds that can get stuck in the mouth’s soft tissue, causing serious discomfort and painful injuries. If you have grass pastures, camels can and will graze when browse isn’t available.
While there are limited studies on the nutritional needs of camels, we did find a few that mentioned the percentage of intake by 1100 pounds of body weight. In one study, dromedary camels that were observed eating in natural “rangeland” conditions consumed around 2.45% of dry matter versus consuming 1% of dry matter when given a fibrous diet in captivity. In that case, this appears to be because they picked over coarser vegetation provided for higher quality vegetation and therefore didn’t need more. When they were fed berseem hay and barley straw, they only consumed .68% of their body weight, and it was noted they began losing weight. Yet another study found they consumed about 1.4% of their body weight when fed wheat straw and a little over a pound of a barley-based concentrate a day. Supplementing their diet with commercial concentrated feeds will affect the amount of forage they consume. This could reduce or even increase the intake of forage depending on the type of forage available. As you see, camel nutrition is complicated, and you are best served by discussing the diet of any camel resident with a veterinarian experienced with their care. We will update this section as we find clearer information.
Ideally, hay should be offered off the ground in troughs or hay bags. This lowers the risk of sand impactions or intestinal parasites. Although they are naturally browsers that will eat leaves from trees, don’t hang any hay bags to high above their head. Dry hay can be brittle and dusty and rain down irritating particles that can get into their eyes. Camels naturally move as they browse. Spreading browse and other food throughout their living area can help recreate a space where natural behaviors can occur.
Camel residents can also be fed commercial camel food, but this shouldn’t make up the main part of their diet. Camel residents can also have some fruits and veggies (camel-safe and in moderation). Remember, any changes in the diet should be made gradually to avoid health issues. Your veterinarian may recommend supplementing their diet with canola or cottonseed meal (or additional grains or concentrates if they are underweight).
In addition to their main diet, camel residents should have access to loose salt or soft salt blocks. Camels require much more salt than your usual resident – think 6-8 times more than your average While "cow" can be defined to refer exclusively to female cattle, at The Open Sanctuary Project we refer to domesticated cattle of all ages and sexes as "cows." resident! Loose salt or soft salt blocks are best as hard blocks are challenging for them to lick salt from, and some may attempt to bite them instead. This can negatively impact their dental health. Check with your veterinarian to determine the best choice for your resident.
Camels are vulnerable to certain dietary deficiencies, such as Selenium, Vitamin E, and Copper. They are also vulnerable to Copper toxicity if fed mineral blocks intended for other species with higher ratios of Copper in their diet. The following are examples of the disease different deficiencies may cause:
- Heart and respiratory issues – Selenium deficiency
- White muscle disease – Selenium deficiency
- Swayback – Selenium deficiency (suspected)
- Muscular Dystrophy – Vitamin E deficiency, Selenium
- Death in calves – Vitamin E deficiency
- Rickets – Vitamin D deficiency
- Night Blindness – Vitamin A deficiency
- Anemia is a condition in which the blood is deficient in red blood cells, in hemoglobin, or in total volume., blindness, muscle spasms, death – Vitamin B1 deficiency
- Weakness, anemia, bone softening and deformities (in calves) – Copper deficiency
- Lameness, abnormalities in joints and bones, stiffness (in calves), weakness, and emeciation in adults – Calcium and phosphorous deficinecy
And, yes, camels can store water and go without access for some time. This is an adaptation allowing them to survive in places where water is scarce. However, water should never be scarce at a sanctuary, and you should always provide access to clean, cool water. There is no exception, even for camels!
Medical Care For Camels
Like other camelids, camels are susceptible to both external and internal parasites and should be monitored for and treated for both if they are found present. You should work with an experienced veterinarian to determine the de-worming needs and schedule, if appropriate, based on each individual camel. Conditions like sarcoptic mange, brucellosis, dental issues, and many other health conditions can affect camel residents and should be discussed with a local experienced veterinarian regarding risk profiles and appropriate care. All camel residents should be routinely given a health exam. Be sure to observe the resident’s behavior and mobility, then check their coat, skin, neck, abdomen, back, limbs, feet, nose, mouth, eyes, and genital area.
Here are a few health-related things to consider:
- Internal and external parasites
- Dental health
- Dietary deficiencies
- Toenail trimming
- Regional disease risks
- Hump health
It is important to learn what a healthy camel hump looks like, which will vary between dromedary and barctiran camels as well as individuals. Once you understand what a healthy hump looks like for your camel resident, you can use this as another way to assess health. Camels will also need their teeth checked and floated by a veterinarian at least once a year. Additionally, you may be surprised to learn that camels do not have hooves! They have padded feet with toenails that will need to be trimmed. The frequency will depend on their environment (are there areas in their living space that naturally wear away nails?) and individual history and health.
Your veterinarian will recommend the best vaccinations, depending on your sanctuary’s region and the risk of contracting local illnesses. Vaccines for tetanus and clostridial diseases (C & D perfringens, septicum) are often recommended. West Nile and streptococcus, rabies, and anthrax are some other vaccinations that may be recommended.
If you’re caring for camels, you must know how to handle them safely. It can be quite challenging to conduct a health exam properly, load them, or provide medical care if they are reluctant. Some camels are more receptive to being handled than others, depending on their age, sex, reproductive status, and how they’ve been socialized. Each resident in your care might have their own special handling needs depending on their breed, personality, history, and health needs. Regular handling of camel residents will help familiarize them with the experience and can help make stressful events like health concerns, separations, and relocations a little less nerve-wracking, but be very mindful of the unique challenges that camels face! Positive reinforcement bonding sessions can help build trust for safer handling.
Did you know that once a camel starts to sit down, they must complete the act of sitting before they can rise again? For this reason, a camel resident should always have a long enough length of rope when tied to allow them to sit comfortably without potentially choking. Tying lead ropes lower helps prevent this.
Social Needs Of Camels
Camels are social animals and should have companions, ideally other camels. Camels can usually be housed together after males have been neutered, and there is a transition period. Generally, female camels are less Behaviors such as chasing, cornering, biting, kicking, problematic mounting, or otherwise engaging in consistent behavior that may cause mental or physical discomfort or injury to another individual, or using these behaviors to block an individual's access to resources such as food, water, shade, shelter, or other residents. though males are usually not confrontational unless they are intact or retain some territorial behaviors when another male is introduced. Some veterinarians recommend waiting to neuter camels until puberty, as pre-puberty neutering could cause their leg bones to grow longer than normal. There is some concern that pre-puberty neutering could also lead to excess weight gain later in life. Neutering should never occur on a male (bull) in rut. There is an increase in the risk of hemorrhaging during this time to the increased blood supply to the area and increased size of the testicles.
An ideal grouping would be a single male with multiple females, an all-male herd, or a female herd, although this varies depending on the individuals involved. However, a mixed grouping can also be successful in some cases if the personalities mesh well. If you only have a single rescue camel, consider taking in another in need of sanctuary. As with any group, sometimes disputes or bullying may occur. Finding a new grouping is important to prevent distress and injury if this becomes a problem. This can be especially true if two males begin seriously fighting as they can cause fatal injuries. Any new introductions should be done slowly and carefully, ensuring the safety and comfort of the individuals.
Enrichment For Camels
Camels have inquisitive minds and enjoy exploring things in their living spaces. Offering browse is great. Providing water features (misters, pools) and dust bathing areas can help create a dynamic environment. Adding piles of various camel-safe substrates can provide new scents and textures to explore. Hanging treats can also be an interesting way to engage with their food and environment. Adding camel-safe cut trees to their living space can encourage foraging and provide new textures, smells, and objects to manipulate, as well as browse to eat. You can add other scents and herbs throughout their living space to encourage movement and exploration.
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