Llama Photo Contest
Basics of Behavior and Handling of Llamas and Alpacas
Rachel Elliott, Veterinary Student, Ohio State Univ. CVM 2003
David E Anderson, DVM, MS, DACVS, Kansas State Univ.
So you are thinking of becoming the proud owner of a llama or an
alpaca. Welcome to an exciting and growing industry! While camelids
are much easier to work with than many traditional livestock, these
animals can be challenging at times when it becomes necessary to handle
them. To help you as you begin working with these interesting animals,
here are a few handling guidelines that should be used. These
guidelines will make working with camelids much easier on both you and
your llama or alpaca, and they will make any veterinary visits go more
One of the most important aspects of camelid behavior to
remember is their herding instinct; both llamas and alpacas are
extremely herd-oriented animals. This can be both an advantage and a
disadvantage as we work with them. One of the benefits of their strong
herding instinct is that this can make moving groups much easier. The
animals will tend to stay together and make less work for us as we move
them. A disadvantage of this behavior is that it makes it difficult to
single animals out for individual treatment.
Perhaps the most effective way to overcome this is to use a
series of catch pens that gradually become smaller, until you are able
to separate individual animals. Avoid making sudden movements that can
be interpreted as threatening gestures as this may frighten the animals
and make it much more difficult to catch those that you need. As you
single out the individual that needs your attention, approach the animal
slowly and take hold of the neck close to the head. This will allow you
more control over the animal, as it will likely try to escape your
grasp. For a secure hold that will be safer for you and the animal,
place the head in the crook of your elbow and pull it close to your
Congratulations, you've captured your first camelid with a
minimum of stress and injury to either the animal or yourself. But what
do you do with an animal that is adamant about getting away from you?
Luckily, there are some tricks that will help you keep control of the
animal long enough to treat it. With both llamas and alpacas, one of
the easiest methods is "earring". This technique involves bringing the
hand not involved in head restraint up along the animal's neck and
grabbing the outside ear. Do not use a twisting motion to control the
animal, rather, simply squeeze the base of the ear firmly and hold as
the animal is treated. This is similar to earring in horses.
Another restraint method used for alpacas is to rest your other
hand on the point of the shoulders at the base of the neck and gently
but firmly press downward. This should help you to control the animal
and keep it still for any treatments necessary. For an animal that is
continuously swinging around and not standing still, you may use your
free hand to grasp the base of the tail to help hold them in one place.
You may also have another person do the same for you, especially with
A unique camelid behavior that can be used to our advantage in
handling is the "kush." This is a term for sternal recumbency, in other
words, when the animal lays down with its legs up underneath its body.
Depending on the animal, some llamas and alpacas will kush when you grab
their tail, when they are stressed, or for no obvious reason. When the
animal does go down while you are trying to handle it, allow it to do so
and simply restrain the animal and apply light pressure to encourage it
to maintain the posture. This handling method works well when multiple
people are in the pen; one or more people can help to hold the animal
while another performs the procedure. While not the least stressful
handling option, it can be useful when an animal is not willing to
submit to any other forms of restraint.
When properly trained, use of a halter on llamas and alpacas can
be invaluable as a handling tool. Training consists of getting the
animal used to handling and used to the halter from an early age.
Proper halter fit is essential for its use; this is necessary due to
camelid nasal anatomy. A good portion of the nose directly behind the
nostrils is cartilage rather than bone. Improper halter fit can lead to
pinching of the nasal passage and panic in the llama or alpaca as these
animals mostly breathe through their nose. Make sure the halter is
sized appropriately for a llama or alpaca and that the halter rings are
almost to the corner of the eyes. This position will assure that the
noseband is sitting past the cartilage on bone. Now you may use a lead
rope to direct the animal, giving them an appropriate amount of slack in
case something should startle the animal.
These are just a few handling tips that will help to make
working with your new llama or alpaca go more smoothly. When you become
more comfortable with these procedures and camelid behavior, your
experiences as an owner and handler will be much more enjoyable. These
skills will also be useful in the event that your llama or alpaca
becomes ill; continuing care will be more easily accomplished when you
are able to give the medicine prescribed by your veterinarian. When you
have questions on animal handling, remember to ask other owners or your
veterinarian. They can assist you in becoming better at working with
these unique animals.