South Central Llama Association
Llama Medical Management
International Llama Association Educational Brochure #4
This is general medical information and cannot be specific to all areas of the country. Be sure to contact your local veterinarian for information that applies to your area. Owners should recognize that some veterinarians might be venturing beyond the comfortable limits of their practice. Owners should always strive for a mutually supportive working relationship with their local veterinarian, facilitating consultation with experienced llama veterinarians when necessary.
Many experienced llama owners relate that they have llamas because the animal brings a sense of peace. No doubt llamas can relieve our stress, but only if they are healthy. Therefore it is essential that owners know how to recognize normal and abnormal llama behavior and other characteristics of good versus poor health. This recognition will enable the owner to make the educated decisions necessary to maintain optimum health, as well as seek treatment for illnesses in a timely fashion. Equally important to recognizing general characteristics is the owner's knowledge of the individual llama and its unique behavior. Owners who possess an awareness of how individual llamas act at certain times of the day often observe peculiar behavior that alerts them that the animal is not well. The owner may not know what is wrong, but things just are not right. The best advice comes from respected camelid veterinarian, Dr. Murray Fowler, “Know your animals.”
New owners need to familiarize themselves with certain fundamentals of health care before purchase. All owners should decide what the llama's use will be and make plans to place their llama in a safe and healthy environment. Llamas prefer the company of other llamas, but a single llama can be purchased as a guard for compatible livestock. They need an area of pasture that has shade in the summer and protection from inclement weather. (Refer to brochure #5 Llama Housing and Fencing)
Even though llamas are “easy keepers”, it is still important to research the nutritional requirements for optimal health. Testing forages and balancing deficiencies with mineral supplements will add to the llama's general health and well being. (Refer to brochure #6 Feeding Camelids for more information)
The normal llama averages about 300 pounds but may vary from 250 to 450 pounds. Owners should learn to body condition score or weigh their animals every 30 to 60 days to monitor condition. Adults may gain weight in the spring and lose it in the late summer and fall. This weight fluctuation can be due to pasture or hay changes. Weighing, body scoring, and recording results aids in establishing feeding requirements, as well as determining dewormer dosages. Healthy baby "crias" may vary from 25 to 38 pounds at birth. The navel of each cria should be treated at birth with chlorhexidine solution or 7% iodine. Crias should be weighed daily the first week of life to be sure of weight gain. An average of 0.5 lb. to 1.0 lb. weight gain per day is normal. A healthy baby llama will pass its first stool called meconium within 4 to 8 hours. Do not be alarmed if this is very dark in color and compacted. Some breeders routinely give an enema to babies to encourage passage of the meconium. Baby llamas should stand and nurse within an hour of birth. (Refer to brochure #8 So You Want To Be A Llama Mama)
A normal rectal temperature for adults is about 100° F with ranges from 99.0° to 101.5°F. Crias are slightly higher with a range of 99.0° to 102.0° The average heart rate of an adult llama that is calm is 48 to 60 beats per minute. A heart rate above 80 in adults or 120 in crias merits immediate veterinary attention. A stethoscope is best for measuring the heartbeat inside the left elbow. Watching the nostrils flare or observing the rib cage can gauge respiratory rate. One will observe about 20 breaths per minute with a range of 12 to 30.
Male llamas become sexually mature at about two years of age, although there are reports of males being fertile as young as one year. Llama semen is unique in its high viscosity, low motility, and low concentration of sperm. Female llamas can be bred as young as 4 months of age but it is the standard practice to keep young female llamas away from a breeding male until the female is at least 15 to 18 months of age. Breeding takes place in the “kush” (recumbent) position and lasts from 15 to 45 minutes. The female is an induced ovulator and ovulates from the breeding stimulus.
The normal gestation for llamas is 330 to 365 days with an average of about 350 days. Most females give birth during the daylight hours. Difficult births are uncommon and normal births should be completed in two hours. Births outside the normal time window should alert the owner to possible complications.
Baby llamas must remain with the herd until weaning age to insure proper socialization. If supplemental feeding is required, strict attention should be given to discipline and socialization by the herd.
Toe nails need to be checked at least twice per year. (Refer to brochure #7 Llama Herd Management for detailed instruction.)
Llamas should be body scored and or weighed every 30-60 days. Records of weights should be compared for extreme gains or losses. During examination, the llama should be felt for knots, swellings, skin problems, etc. Llamas may develop abscesses and tumors like every other species.
Intact males develop six fighting teeth by 30 to 36 months of age. The teeth can cause severe lacerations to other llamas and should be cut off at the gum line. (Refer to brochure #7 Llama Herd Management). Older llamas occasionally require trimming of the incisors or filing of the cheek teeth.
It might be practical to geld male llamas not intended for breeding. The age for gelding depends on the purpose of the animal and the herd management circumstances. The newly gelded male should be kept separate from females for a period of two months to avoid unexpected pregnancies.
Llama crias should be weaned from their mothers at 5 to 6 months of age. There needs to be an adjustment time of about two weeks after weaning before the cria is shipped to a new home to avoid undue stress.
A preventative health program should include a pre-purchase examination. A veterinarian familiar with normal llama anatomy and health care should perform this examination. Strict attention should be paid to previous health records concerning vaccinations and parasite control. Many owners require baseline blood analysis in addition to other checks.
Sometimes communication with the previous owner's veterinarian is necessary to establish if the llama originated from an area of the US where unique parasitic or infectious diseases are recorded. Llama owners should be aware that no vaccine, deworming agents, or medications are approved for use in camelids. All medications and dosages must be extrapolated from other species or be based on specific research. The attending veterinarian may be familiar with diseases and parasites in their practice area and can make suggestions. Basic llama vaccinations utilize Clostridium perfringens type C&D, as well as tetanus toxoid (CD&T). Covexin 8, which includes blackleg, is needed in certain areas and can be used anywhere since it includes CD& T. In many areas rabies vaccination is recommended. If leptospirosis is a problem for other species in the area, the available vaccines may be used to provide protection.
Vaccination schedules still elicit controversy from the veterinary community. The fact is that the success of the vaccination program is dependent upon a healthy immune system and good nutrition. Vaccination schedules vary according to local needs. Many owners are successful giving vaccines 4 to 8 weeks before birthing in an effort to develop protective colostral antibodies.
Crias from vaccinated mothers and who received adequate colostrum may not need their vaccinations started until 6 to 8 weeks of age. If there is any question about adequate intake of colostrum, a blood sample taken from the cria at 24 to 48 hours of age can be tested for IgG levels to insure that the cria has absorbed adequate antibodies from the mother’s colostrum. Antibodies aid resistance to infection. If IgG levels are low, consideration should be given to a plasma transfusion.
Llamas can acquire both internal and external parasites. Management and control of parasites in llamas utilizes dewormers used for other animal species. The owner can have the veterinarian check a fecal sample although a negative fecal sample does not necessarily mean the llamas are parasite free. However, the fecal sample may identify the parasites present so the correct dewormer and dosage can be selected. The most commonly observed stomach worms are Haemonchus, Ostertagia, and Trichostrongylus species. Whipworms (Trichuris) and the thready-necked strongyle (Nematodirus) require selective oral dewormers administered for 3 consecutive days. Liver flukes and the meningeal parasite (Parelaphostrongylus) can be deadly to llamas in certain areas of the US. Coccidia (Eimeria sp.) and giardia can be more common in young llamas. In certain areas wet pastures and crowded animal density can propagate these parasites. Routine dewormers do not control coccidia. Consult your veterinarian for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.
Dung removal, adequate drainage, frequent bedding changes, and low animal density all help to control parasite numbers. All new llamas to a farm should be quarantined, checked for external parasites and dewormed before introduction into the herd. Flies, lice, ticks, nasal bots and mites can affect llamas. Flies are controlled by good husbandry and with similar means as in other species. Lice can be either the biting or sucking variety. Treatment depends on the species of louse. Itching and scratching are a common manifestation of ticks, mites or lice infestation and can result in fiber loss. Ticks are uncommon but cases of tick paralysis and Lyme disease have been reported. Ear ticks in llamas are an increasingly important problem and can be treated with most ear mite medications.
Llamas are extremely stoic and rarely show outward signs of sickness. Owner knowledge and observation of individual animal behavior often yield the first clue to illness. Llamas that lie down excessively, get up and down frequently, or lay with their back feet out to the side are often displaying discomfort or pain. Gritting or grinding of teeth is also a sign of discomfort. Groaning, looking or kicking at their stomach, not chewing their cud, not eating, and reluctance to rise signal the need for immediate veterinary attention. The llama that does not show up to eat as usual is often ill. Weight loss and diarrhea are abnormal. Normal stools are pelleted. Clumped stools may be associated with lush water-filled grass or rich hay. Lack of feces may indicate reduced feed intake or an obstruction. Abrupt food changes, particularly excess grain or sudden exposure to lush vegetation can cause digestive disturbances. A very sick camelid may result in a recumbent llama that cannot rise. Immediate veterinary attention should be secured for any llama exhibiting abnormal behavior.
Fever, weight loss, or fiber loss are signs that merit attention. Llamas should be felt down their backbone at least once monthly. Their fiber often covers the real body condition from the naked eye. Blood evaluation through chemistry panel, CBC, and mineral panel is helpful in assessing the extent of sickness, as well as selecting appropriate therapy. Veterinarians can draw blood via the jugular vein, but must be aware that llamas lack the obvious jugular groove found in other species. Adequate restraint is necessary as this vein must be located between the trachea and the cervical vertebra under the fiber or wool.
Llamas can demonstrate lameness due to many of the same causes as other species. Sprains, strains, and footpad injuries are possible. Prompt medical attention may be necessary for weakness or lack of coordination. In the Eastern and Midwestern US, where white-tailed deer, snails, or slugs reside, rear leg weakness can signal infestation and larval migration from a meningeal parasite. The protozoan parasite can also cause lack of coordination. This illness merits prompt diagnosis and aggressive treatment by the veterinarian.
Owners should be observant to swelling in the bone around the teeth and jaws, as it can be associated with gum injury and tooth root abscesses. Prompt veterinary attention to this swelling may prevent prolonged and permanent infection. Rancid llama breath should always be considered a sign of illness and merit prompt attention.
Many owners appreciate and purchase llamas for their fiber. In certain areas of the United States, it is important that the fiber be removed (sheared or clipped) before summer heat and or humidity become excessive.
Because of the wool overcoat, llamas can be very stressed by heat and humidity. The combination of heat and humidity can be dangerous. Cool water, electrolytes, and shade are necessary to prevent muscle damage and recumbency caused by overheating, commonly referred to as heat stress. A swollen scrotum in a male is an early sign of heat stress. Increased respiration, drooling, weakness and a reluctance to move are clinical signs associated with advanced heat stress.
The heat stress index is high if the combination of temperature (degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity (%) is > 150. The heat stress index is extreme if the sum is > 180. Animals kept in warm climates can become heat stressed if they reach body temperatures in excess of 103.5°. Body temperatures above 102.5°F should be monitored closely and cooling practices instigated during warm or humid weather. Elevated temperatures at any time of year should be monitored. (Refer to brochure #11 Heat Stress in Llamas.)
Owners and veterinarians must be knowledgeable in administering oral dewormers and medications. Powdered medications can be mixed in applesauce, placed in a catheter-tip syringe and administered through the side of the mouth over the back of the tongue. Deworming guns used for cattle can be traumatic to the inside of the llama's mouth.
Veterinarians are skilled at passing a stomach tube and can instruct owners on its use if he or she feels it is appropriate. A stomach tube may be necessary to give large volumes of medication and to relieve choke. A stomach tube passed through a speculum of 1-inch schedule 80 (heavy wall) PCV pipe can work in experienced hands.
A healthy llama will give you great pleasure and satisfaction.
Fowler, Murray. Medicine and Surgery of South American Camelids: Llama, Alpaca, Vicuna, Guanaco. Ames, IA : Iowa State University Press, 1989.
Fowler, Murray. Medicine and Surgery of South American Camelids: Llama, Alpaca, Vicuna, Guanaco. 2nd ed. Ames, IA : Iowa State Press, 1998.
Hoffman, Clare and Asmus, Ingrid. Caring for Llamas: A Health and Management Guide. Fort Collins, CO : Rocky Mountain Llama and Alpaca Association, 1989.
Hoffman, Clare and Asmus, Ingrid. Caring for Llamas & Alpacas: A Health and Management Guide. 2nd ed. Cheyenne, WY : Rocky Mountain Llama and Alpaca Association, 1996.
Hoffman, Eric and Fowler, Murray. The Alpaca Book. Herald, CA: Clay Press, 1995.
Hoffman, Eric. The Complete Alpaca Book. Santa Cruz , CA : Bonny Doon Press, 2003.
Johnson, LaRue. “Llama Medicine.” The Veterinary Clinics of North America : Food Animal Practice, 5:1, March 1989.
Johnson, LaRue. “Update on Llama Medicine.” The Veterinary Clinics of North America : Food Animal Practice, 10:2, July 1994.
Dr. Norman Evans, Dr. Karen Baum Reviewers: The ILR Board of Directors
Dr. Evans did his undergraduate study at the University of Kentucky. In 1968 he graduated from veterinary school at Auburn University. While in a practice with three other veterinarians in Madisonville, KY, he was exposed to llamas. In 1992 he devoted an increased amount of time to llamas having a Mobile Veterinary Service consulting widely in several states. He has participated in numerous educational conferences and seminars both for veterinarians and lay persons. He has written extensively of llama medical care.
Dr. Baum graduated from Iowa State University, College of Veterinary Medicine , completed an ambulatory internship at The Ohio State University, a large animal medicine residency at Cornell University and worked at a racetrack practice before accepting a faculty position at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech. She managed a llama herd after leaving the University. She is the owner of Little Doc's Veterinary Care, a private large animal practice emphasizing llamas and alpacas. She has given over 100 seminars and has also written extensively about llama medical care. She has held numerous offices in llama organizations including: Lama Association of Mid Atlantic States, the Alpaca Research Foundation and International Lama Registry on whose boards she still serves.