This resource has been partially reviewed and updatedA member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff has updated one or more sections within this resource. by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of May 2, 2023.
When a new alpaca arrives at your sanctuary, there are a number of critical steps that must be taken to ensure safety for the incoming resident, your existing residents, and yourself!
IndividualsIdentify The Specific Needs Of Incoming
While alpacas, in general, have certain diet, housing, and care needs, you must also consider if the new arrivals require any special accommodations based on their age, health status, known history, or the circumstances of their recent living situation. Each new resident and situation will be different, but some things to consider include:
- If you’re taking in crias (baby alpacas), you will have to learn how to properly care for them in terms of heat, food, and shelter and if you take in a pregnant alpaca, you will need to learn how to offer appropriate prenatal care.
- If you welcome a mother alpaca along with her nursing cria, you should not separate the two of them unless absolutely necessary for their health. If you must separate them, allow them to be close enough to touch if they choose to!
- If the new alpaca is from a starvation situation, be sure to work closely with your veterinarian to determine what to feed them. Offering unrestricted food sources to an animal who has been starved can result in serious health complications.
- Any time you welcome a new resident, you should take the time to closely observe their behaviors before entering their living space and make sure staff who will work with the resident know what physical cues to be on the lookout for that may indicate they are frightened or feeling confrontational. While confrontational behavior is much less likely in alpacas than it is in llamas, it is possible, though unlikely, that a mature unneutered male may exhibit some confrontational behaviors.
- While not particularly common, staff should be aware of aberrant behavior syndrome (previously referred to as berserk male syndrome) and the behavioral issues that may arise from it. Much of what has been labeled berserk male syndrome is territorial and other inappropriate behaviors towards humans thought to be caused by overhandling crias and removing them from the company of other alpacas where they would develop healthy relationships with other alpacas and learn alpaca behaviors. Management, neutering, and gentle, consistent training may help in this situation but an expert in this type of behavior issue should be consulted. Some veterinarians believe true aberrant behavior syndrome is caused by a brain tumor. In this case, gentle training is unlikely to be successful.
- If the new alpaca is very agile and appears to be fearful, or if the new resident is assumed to have escaped from their previous living situation, be sure to assess if your quarantine space can safely contain them. Any time you take in fearful individuals, it is important to find gentle ways to help them become more comfortable around their caregivers. They may never become alpacas who crave human attention (though some individuals who arrive very fearful, certainly do!), but you should be able to ease their fears and hence increase their comfort, even if they choose to keep their distance from humans.
Adhere To A Quarantine Policy
It is imperative that you implement quarantineThe policy or space in which an individual is separately housed away from others as a preventative measure to protect other residents from potentially contagious health conditions, such as in the case of new residents or residents who may have been exposed to certain diseases. protocols to prevent possible disease spread between the new resident and others. Quarantine is critical for all new residents of any species, even if they appear healthy and even if you know exactly where the individual came from! Quarantine procedures protect the rest of your residents (and the humans that care for them) from infectious diseases that may not be producing clinical signs in a healthy-looking arrival – an entire herd or flock could be easily infected, and possibly even killed, by certain infectious diseases. You can read more about quarantine protocols here.
If you’re taking in a whole herd that was living together previously, you can probably quarantine them together since it’s likely that any diseases they have will be already spread throughout the herd, and staying together may put the new residents more at ease. If an individual alpaca seems very ill or to be behaving oddly or has an open abscess, they should be isolated from the others until a veterinarian determines exactly what’s wrong. Monitor the herd to ensure that the current social situation is safe for everyone. Just because they came in together, doesn’t necessarily mean they get along well. If anyone appears to be getting picked on, find a way to split the group to reduce tensions while avoiding anyone having to live in isolation unless absolutely necessary.
Evaluating A New Alpaca’s Health
When welcoming a new resident to your sanctuary, it is imperative that you assess their overall health to ensure you are addressing any issues as soon as possible. This is accomplished through initial observations, conducting an intake evaluation, performing diagnostic testing, ongoing observation, and possibly a veterinarian’s assessment of the individual, especially if the new alpaca shows any signs of concern.
Whenever you welcome a new resident to your sanctuary, it is crucial that you spend some time observing the individual upon arrival to determine any immediate needs they may have. If you or your staff picked up the individual and transported them back to the sanctuary, this observation process will actually begin before the new resident sets foot on sanctuary grounds. Through thoughtful observation, you may be able to identify signs of concern that warrant immediate veterinary care or further assessment on your part. This part of the intake process will also help determine if an intake evaluation must happen immediately or can wait for the new resident to settle in a little bit. In instances where you are taking in multiple new residents, this process will also help you prioritize individuals who appear to require more urgent assessment.
If you are taking in alpacas who look very similar, you must have a system of identifying and documenting individuals while you are getting to know who is who. Every individual will have their own unique characteristics, so it may be helpful to take lots of pictures and write out thorough descriptions for staff and volunteers to refer to while learning everyone’s names. In some cases, additional, temporary identification may be needed to help everyone learn who is who. One option is to use different colored animal-safe temporary paint or grease markers. By placing a small mark or possibly their first initial on their side, staff may be better able to learn each individual’s name. These marks will fade overtime, and hopefully, by the time the mark wears off, staff will have a stronger sense of how to identify who is who. If an alpaca arrives with an ear tag, record their tag number if applicable (and consider taking a photo as well), and as long as it is not causing issues currently, we recommend you not remove it for at least 30 days and until you are sure you won’t be adopting the individual out of your region (which may require an ear tag). Keep any removed tags with their records.
Prioritizing An Intake Evaluation
It’s important to perform an intake evaluation on all new residents, ideally within 24 hours of arrival, though some may need more immediate assessment. An intake evaluation includes conducting a full health check to evaluate their overall health and to learn more about the individual, as well as gather important information for their permanent record. Be sure to follow quarantine procedures while conducting the intake evaluation. To learn more about the intake evaluation process, including how to prioritize assessing and addressing a new resident’s needs, check out our resource here! If, for whatever reason, you are unable to perform a full health evaluation shortly after their arrival, you will need to closely observe new residents for signs of concern and take steps to address those concerns appropriately.
An intake evaluation is conducted in much the same way as a routine health check – you should check every inch of the alpaca, looking for any signs of concern, and providing any necessary treatments. While there are a variety of issues you may find during a new alpaca resident’s intake evaluation, there are some health challenges that are especially common in new alpacas. These include:
- Foot Issues– Because sanctuaries often take in individuals who may have had their needs neglected, very often new alpacas arrive with overgrown nails. In most cases you should be able to trim them down to a normal length, but if the nail is severely overgrown or misshapen and you are not sure how much to trim, you should consult with your veterinarian. Be sure to check for any signs of foot rot, ulcerative pododermatitis, or other abnormalities, and work with your veterinarian to diagnose any issues and establish a treatment plan.
- Mobility Or Joint Issues– You should assess the alpaca’s mobility by watching them walk and looking for any abnormalities in their gait or shifting of weight when standing. When checking their legs, pay extra attention to their joints, feeling for any heat, swelling, or crepitus (popping or crunching). Mobility and joint issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the cause and appropriate treatment plan.
- Respiratory Issues– Watch closely, both during the intake evaluation and during the quarantine period, for any signs of respiratory illness such as nasal discharge, coughing, an elevated respiratory rate, fever, or breathing that sounds wet, raspy, or wheezy. Your veterinarian can evaluate the alpaca’s lungs, recommend diagnostic testing, and ultimately offer treatment options.
- Abscesses– Check their body thoroughly for any abscesses. Abscesses on the skin manifest as raised lumps, though not every lump is an abscess. One common cause of subcutaneous abscesses is Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL). This disease is spread through contact with the pus. If you take in a group of new alpacas and only one individual has abscesses, you may want to separate them until diagnostics can be done to determine the cause. If it is CL, it’s possible the other alpacas may have already been exposed, but it’s typically a good idea to keep individuals with open abscesses separated while the abscess is draining, especially if CL is a possibility.
- Excessive Wool– If you are taking in an alpaca with overgrown wool during the warm season, you must have them carefully shorn to prevent overheating. In the cold season, evaluate whether the wool would be preferable to leave to keep them warm, or if there is a concern that makes shearing them necessary. In some cases you may need to perform a partial shearing either to evaluate an area of concern or to address an issue such as urine scald. If the alpaca has copious amounts of wool or wool that is matted, felted or full of debris, they may need shorn regardless of the temperatures in order to better evaluate the individual and to make them more comfortable. In these cases, you will need to fit them with a coat or find other ways to keep them warm.
- Emaciation– It is not uncommon for new alpacas to arrive severely underweight. This could be caused by many issues such as improper diet, dental issues, or disease. Be sure to have new residents who are significantly underweight evaluated by a veterinarian and talk with them about how to encourage safe weight gain. Be sure to have the veterinarian check their teeth in addition to running any diagnostics. Dental issues are a common, but sometimes overlooked, cause of weight loss in mature alpacas.
- Parasites– Alpacas can suffer from both internal and external parasites. While there are a number of different parasites they can be affected by, perhaps those of particular concern are meningeal worm and barber pole. Both require immediate treatment, and while barber pole worm infections can be diagnosed with a fecal exam, meningeal worm cannot, so you must be on the lookout for signs an individual may be infected. Symptoms generally appear 6-8 weeks after initial infection and include neurological issues such as incoordination, difficulty rising, head tilt, blindness, circling, and weight loss. It is important to speak with your veterinarian about the risks in your area and how to best prevent infections, as it is difficult to diagnose and treat. While an incoming fecal sample will be able to identify a barber pole infection, due to the potential severity of this parasite, you should also be on the lookout for symptoms which include weight loss, pale mucous membranes (anemia), and swelling under the jaw (bottle jaw). If barber pole is an issue in your area, talk to your veterinarian about best practices to prevent the growing issue of drug-resistance and about using FAMACHA as a screening tool.
In addition to looking for signs of concern, you should determine the following information. In some cases this will require veterinary involvement:
- Assess spay/ neuter/ pregnancy status: New males should be evaluated to determine their neuter status, though in some cases you may need a veterinarian to help with this if you are unsure. Intact males should be neutered as soon as your veterinarian deems appropriate. They will need time to recover after the surgery, which could extend their time in isolation if done towards the end of their quarantine period. Females who are sexually mature should be evaluated for pregnancy through an ultrasound and/ or blood testing. If an incoming resident is early on in their pregnancy, some sanctuaries choose to induce miscarriage. While there are closprostenol-based products (extra-label for camelids) that can induce miscarriage, these should not be administered without the supervision of a veterinarian experienced in camelid reproductive care. The decision to induce miscarriage ultimately depends on an individual sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care.
- Approximate their age by looking at their teeth: We are not talking about evaluating their dental health here- that definitely requires an experienced veterinarian. However, by observing how many adult teeth an alpaca has, you can estimate their age. Unfortunately, it is very challenging to do this in individuals who are over 5 years of age, but this can be a useful tool for younger alpacas. If you have never aged an alpaca in this way before, there are plenty of resources online that show how to do this, or you can work with your veterinarian and have them show you how. They may be better able to guess the age of an alpaca who has all their adult teeth by looking at how long or worn they are. Having a general idea of their age can be very helpful when considering their needs. When examining an alpaca’s teeth, never put your hand inside an alpaca’s mouth as they have very sharp teeth that can seriously injure a finger.
If you have not already done so, work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate incoming testing protocols for new alpacas you welcome to your sanctuary. While individuals showing signs of concern may require additional diagnostics, there may be certain tests your veterinarian recommends for all incoming alpacas. At a minimum, all new residents should have a fecal sample submitted to check for internal parasites. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend dewormingThe act of medicating an animal to reduce or eliminate internal parasites, either prophylactically or in response to illness. treatments based on the fecal results. Be sure to submit another fecal sample 10-14 days after any deworming treatment to evaluate its effectiveness. In order to help prevent the ever-increasing resistance to available deworming medications, it’s important to only use dewormers when necessary and to work closely with your veterinarian if resistance to certain dewormers seems to be an issue. It’s important to note that E. macusaniensis is an especially long-incubating internal parasite that affects camelids, so it’s best to conduct a re-test fecal exam towards the end of quarantine to ensure that the individual isn’t infected. This will also give you another opportunity to confirm you won’t be spreading barber pole worm to your existing herd.
Consult with your veterinarian to see what tests they recommend for screening purposes, such as CL or Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus (BVDV) testing, and make sure you understand the test’s sensitivity and specificity (which will tell you what the chances of a false-negative or false-positive are). If a new resident has subcutaneous abscesses, the pus should be submitted for bacterial culture – this is a more accurate way to diagnose (or rule out) CL than the blood test.
Your veterinarian may recommend other testing based on the specifics of your region. Certain disease confirmations may require an official report to your local government- if testing for screening purposes only, you may want to have a conversation with your veterinarian about what a positive result would mean for the individual and the sanctuary.
Some health conditions may take time to show outward symptoms. For example, individuals with CL may arrive with no external signs of disease, so it’s important to continue to monitor them for signs of abscesses. While all residents should be observed closely each day, extra attention should be paid to new residents during their quarantine period to ensure any potential issues are caught and addressed as soon as possible.
Work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccine protocol for your alpaca residents based on the specifics of your resident population and your region. When new alpacas arrive, your veterinarian can help determine if they are healthy enough for vaccination, which will depend on the vaccine. It may be best to wait to administer certain vaccines if the alpaca is sick, but with others it may be recommended that even alpacas who are ill receive the vaccine as soon as possible.
Introducing The Newcomer To Other Alpacas
If the new alpaca is much less mature than the existing herd, you may want to let them grow up a bit before introducing them to the rest of the herd to ensure their safety during their introduction and to give them time to build up enough immune system strength to handle any disease that might be lurking in the herd. Also, newly neutered male alpacas are still fertile for weeks after the operation, so make sure to wait until they’re completely sterile before they’re around any impregnable herdmates!
Once you’ve ensured that the new alpaca is healthy enough to join the resident herd, it can be a good idea to give the alpacas time to get used to each other by living in separate, but adjacent, spaces. Consider letting the new alpaca live in the same barn as the resident herd without having physical access to one another. This will give them an opportunity to meet without the potential for injuries. You should consider giving the alpacas at least two weeks of this transition period before letting them meet, though every introduction is different.
When you’re ready to introduce the new alpaca to the herd, it’s very important that you monitor their introduction in case you need to intervene! Alpacas are not generally as territorial as llamas, but as with any resident species, there is an adjustment period during which it is not unusual to see confrontational behavior. Alpacas are generally more skittish and tend to closely bond more easily in groups than llamas but every individual is different. Responses to a new member can be diverse, ranging from mild posturing or spitting to avoidance. There are cases where an alpaca, particularly a male, may exhibit more confrontational behaviors such as chasing, kicking, or biting.
You can help facilitate a successful introduction by adding multiple sites for resources in the living area of the established herd. As long as no one is getting injured or overdoing it, it’s generally best to let alpaca residents sort things out for themselves. However, if things get out of hand, you’ll need to break up conflicts quickly. Watch closely to make sure no one is causing injury and that no one is exhausting themselves or showing signs of overheating. It’s especially important to monitor alpacas in case one or more of them have their naturally sharp teeth (fighting teeth)!
With all introductions, monitoring their first few days together is especially critical to make sure everyone is getting along. If alpacas are closed indoors overnight due to risk of predation, you may need to offer the new alpaca their own space overnight since conflicts may be more likely to arise in confined spaces. Some introductions take a few tries. If it seems the new alpaca just isn’t working out in the herd, you may need to separate them for now and continue trying supervised visits, or if you have multiple herds, you may consider trying them with a different group.
Other good techniques to help the alpacas get along include changing out bedding material with each other’s scents in order to familiarize the alpacas with one another (after the new resident has completed quarantine), ensuring plenty of open space where the alpacas socialize, eat, and drink (especially ensuring equal food and water access), and providing lots of space for newly introduced alpacas to avoid each other. If the alpacas are having constant trouble with each other, don’t give up hope yet! It may take a few introductions before they all get along. However, if it seems like the new alpaca will never be fully accepted into the herd, it would be better to create a second herd with a few individuals who get along well with each other, being careful not to separate bonded companions. A herd with a constantly bullied alpaca is an unacceptable living situation for the individual alpaca.
It may seem like a lot of extra steps than just releasing a new alpaca into the pasture, but if you follow the above guidelines, your new friend will have a much greater chance at a happy, healthy life with you and the herd!
BVDV In Camelids | Washington State University
Vaccinations In Camelids | Colorado State University
Rabies In Llamas And Alpacas | Colorado State University
Caseous Lymphadenitis in Camelids | Austin Journal of Veterinary Science
Alpaca & Llama Behavior | University Of California At Davis
Queries On Quarantine | Alpacas Magazine (Non-Compassionate Source)