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Alpaca – unique animals with unique requirements

Alpaca are interesting animals that are popular on small blocks in New Zealand. Alpaca are domesticated animals from South America and belong to the group ‘camelids’ along with camels and llamas. Their high quality fibre is renowned for its softness and lustre, which is used to make luxury clothing items. They also make great pets with friendly personalities. Interestingly enough, they are used as herd protectors for grazing animals in some countries around lambing or kidding time, as they protect the newly born animals from predators such as foxes, eagles and canines, attacking them with their front feet. Alpaca have even been used in New Zealand to protect chickens on free range farms from hawks.

Alpaca are unique in terms of their digestive system and they are classed as ‘pseudo-ruminants’, as they have a similar digestive system to traditional ruminants like cows or sheep – however they have three stomach compartments rather than four. Alpaca do have some specific nutritional requirements that need to be taken into consideration when keeping them, as they are particularly prone to several nutrient deficiencies here in New Zealand.

Vitamin D deficiency

Vitamin D (the ‘sunshine vitamin’) deficiency is common in alpaca. This deficiency is exasperated in the winter months due to decreased sunshine hours and the thick fleece of alpaca. Vitamin D plays an important role in bone development and deficiency during pregnancy and lactation can cause rickets in young cria, due to low vitamin D in colostrum and milk. Symptoms of rickets include bowed legs, shifting leg lameness, joint inflammation, a humpback appearance and a slowed growth rate. Supplementing pregnant and lactating alpaca with vitamin D is a necessity, however non-pregnant and male alpaca will also benefit from vitamin D supplementation year-round too.

Thiamine deficiency

Polioencephalomalacia (PEM), inflammation of the brain due to a thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, is a condition more commonly seen in alpaca compared to other animals.
The gut flora of ruminants and pseudo-ruminants usually produce enough thiamine to satisfy animal requirements, however thiamine production can be reduced in certain circumstances – for example when there is too much sulphur in the diet, or if the rumen is not functioning optimally. Some weeds are also suspected to play a role in thiamine deficiency, due to the presence of an enzyme that breaks down thiamine. Alpaca also seem to deplete their body’s supply of thiamine much more rapidly than cattle, sheep or goats, so show signs of the disease much more rapidly compared to their ruminant cousins. Stress and poor weather are also thought to play a part. Symptoms of PEM include lethargy, low appetite and/or neurological impairment (head and ear twitching, drooling and staggering). Once an animal is showing signs of neurological impairment, injected thiamine is required quickly to avoid death. Regular supplementation of thiamine for alpaca is the best way to prevent PEM cases arising.

Opting for an alpaca specific feed such as Reliance Alpaca Pellets or Reliance Alpaca Conditioning Mix, which both include nutrients such as vitamin D and thiamine, can help to keep your alpaca as healthy and productive as possible – providing vitamin D and thiamine every day, along with a vast profile of other nutrients essential for optimum alpaca health. Note: during the year, additional vitamin D and thiamine may need to be administered to alpaca as per vet recommendations particularly for pregnant alpaca and young cria.

For more information, contact your local Nutrition Specialist.

Article supplied by Stacey Cosnett, Nutritionist, Farmlands.