The alpaca business is not always predictable. Although we make every effort at our alpaca ranch to insure that our birthing procedures are the best they can be. Unfortunately, the loss of an alpaca is a risk that all breeders face. The death of any alpaca is not only traumatic for the breeder, but also for the balance of the herd. When the animal is a dam with a cria at her side, the problem is not limited to the immediate crisis at hand. New challenges emerge and continue to evolve with each new day. The new objective is a daily commitment to survive. So how can the breeder prepare for the loss of a mother and the resulting orphan cria? What can be done to address potential herd management problems when this occurs? What methodology can be used to meet the feeding and nurturing goals of the cria to promote reasonable stability? Here is the story of how we dealt with these issues when tragedy struck our ranch.
Reviewing the birthing chart that my ranch manager places on the wall in our tack room, I was once again excited to see that we were about to birth around 15 crias within the next few months. We have had several deliveries over the last month, but we were about to explode with activity and excitement. It was once again time to focus on supplies, routine preparations, and post-delivery herd sire matching. I felt it was my duty to remind everyone to pay close attention to all of our dams and observe them for signs of labor and behavioral stress. Everyone was to discover crias as close to delivery as possible. I made a grand announcement that this was the season for females -I could feel it in my bones. We were already on a roll of female deliveries. I prayer for continued good fortune. I also determined that we would not lose a single cria due to cold or exposure, so cria coats were counted, washed, mended, and waterproofed.
So, the crias were about to arrive and we were well prepared for the fun and excitement to begin. Then the unthinkable occurred. Despite all our preparation and planning, the most complicated delivery came to be. A dam was attempting to deliver her cria a month early. She confronted a challenging dystocia, then a prolapsed uterus, which sent her into deep shock. After an all-night and all-day fight, with the assistance of our veterinarian, she delivered a motionless cria. It was apparent that she had been attempting to deliver the cria throughout the night and was discovered early the next morning, exhausted and consumed with pain. Upon cria extraction, all signs appeared as if the cria had died. Yet, to our amazement, the 10 lb. suribaby took a breath and slowly revived. Exhaustive efforts shift to the dam at this point. Yet despite all efforts to save her, the dam simply rolled over and died.
This is not the end of the story but merely the beginning. The challenge now is to save "Cooper"!
We had to think fast. We first milked the mother in order to provide the cria with some immediate nourishment and colostrums. By having some of the dam's milk on hand, we felt we improved our chances of saving the cria. Our most urgent concern was to provide the cria with colostrums, which would provide invaluable immunoglobins that are required in the first few months of life. As fate would have it, the 1gG was very low when it came back at 100mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter). Complications from a premature cria can be failure of the immature intestinal tract to absorb the immunoglobins into the bloodstream. By the second day, we opted for a plasma transfer as our first step in resurrecting the situation and saving the cria.
Since Cooper's mother was dead, we faced the overwhelming realization that we were going to be feeding a cria for three to four months. I had heard that bottle-feeding an alpaca around the clock is like having a new baby in your house to care for. We have two (human) babies of our own, and so we knew first-hand what this was like. I also knew the horror stories about bottle-fed crias, and their propensity to imprint incorrectly toward humans. To avoid any possible future behavior problems as a result of this improper imprinting, tube feeding is sometimes employed. Although not as easy as bottle feeding, some people prefer tube feeding, especially with male crias, because it reduces the handling time during feedings. Then the cria will have a better opportunity to imprint on other alpacas and not on humans.
Another important consideration we had to continually assess was food consumption levels and resulting weight gain of the cria. We use both objective and subjective criteria to assess this. With older crias (say, around three months), we mentally note the speed by which the tube empties into the stomach as a subjective reference for the cria's alternate food intake. When the tube empties fast we are usually convinced that the cria is not getting other sources of food or they are limited. If it empties slowly we consider he is getting additional food, like grass or grain. After the feeding is complete, we note the time, amount of milk consumed, and any other findings in our log. Weighing the cria daily is critical for measuring how much the cria is actually fed. We would like to see an average weight gain of a lb. per day for the first two months.
Since this is a great commitment, and there is some risk of perforating the esophagus by rough intubation techniques, it is imperative to consult with your veterinarian for training in how to insert a feeding tube properly. One should also determine if the ranch can meet the demands and requirements involved. There are very few veterinarians that have the time to take on these projects. If you are not committed to the task, try and find a willing resource. Finally, when all is said and done, take your time and use proper procedures. Great care should be taken during tube feeding to assure the safety of the cria.
An alternate feeding method may also be used. Take a 60 cc syringe (with the plunger taken out) and place this into the side of the cria's mouth. Pour the milk in slowly. After each swallow, pour in a bit more and repeat. This alternate method works if you don't mind the mess and are uncomfortable with intubation requirements.
Next, keep in mind that the exact preferred milk mixture may vary from veterinarian to veterinarian. Therefore, we recommend that the consultation include an approved recipe and other guidelines specific to the situation and age of the cria. We have utilized a variety of mixtures, but prefer a combination of whole milk, half-and-half, and a touch of liquid yogurt. This mixture has evolved over time. Yogurt seems to keep the crias from getting diarrhea, and it is also easy on the stomach. Yet, this may not work with every cria. Some will get belly aches (colic) and this will be obvious as they lie around and become less active. In these situations, our veterinarian recommended a milk replacer. This is available at most feed stores. Cooper has recently been moved to a milk replacer and is doing quite well now.
The milk mixture is heated to a luke-warm temperature and given every two to three hours around the clock for the first two or three months. After 2 ½ months of age, you can reduce the number of feedings according to your veterinarian's recommendations, as long as they are effectively gaining weight and are moving to solids. The animal is weighed daily to monitor progress. A good rule of thumb in calculating the amount of milk to feed an orphan cria is around 10% of their body weight per day. For example, a two-month-old cria at around 30 pounds should have daily intake of around 45-48 ounces of milk daily.
Next, keep in mind that a tube-fed cria does not process the milk as efficiently as a cria nursing from its dam. In fact, the natural act of nursing actually promotes good second and third stomach activity. This activity is critical for good digestion. There are also physical limitations when the milk is administered into the (stomach fold) or esophageal reticulum. Here the folds will direct the supplementing milk to the third compartment or abomasums where proper digestion of the milk takes place. If the milk is administered directly into the rumen which is under developed in the young cria it will be poorly utilized. Often, this left over non-digested material can lead to a fermentation process and ultimately secondary infections can arise. After prolonged tube feeding, multiple problems can occur and the cria may become vulnerable. As Cooper well knows, infections may arise and can be treated with antibiotics. We also watch for coccidian, a protozoan parasite that takes a silent assault on crias and can only be suggested by the appearance of irregular dung. Once tested and confirmed, it should be treated immediately. Infections are always a constant enemy of good health and nutrition. Therefore, one is always challenged by keeping the cria's complex nutritional balance in check with a limited diet prepared by the breeder. These mixtures are invariably inconsistent with the animal's normal feeding requirements and routines. Yet most often, they are our only options. Therefore, prioritizing your options would include: 1. grafting cria to a milking dam, 2. tube feeding, 3. and/or a combination of both.
Grafting the Orphan to a Foster Dam
Our top priority was to graft Cooper to another dam in order to stimulate complete digestion and provide a solid reference for normal behavior. To accomplish this, our plan called for housing Cooper with all other crias and dams. As expected, he was ostracized from the others immediately and was often left cushing all alone at the opposite end of the field or shelter. Moving a few moms and crias into a smaller space seemed to facilitate better interaction. The dams and crias would now cush close to him and his options and opportunity to nurse increased.
At this time, we had several dams that had delivered over the last two months. Their crias were about two to three weeks old. Our challenge was to test all of the dams to see if any had an interest in taking on the orphan. While skeptical, we systematically tested all the prospects. Initially, there was no interest by any of them. Collectively, they just spit at him repeatedly. Most walked away when he made any attempts to even stand next to them. It simply broke my heart. He was so small and cute we feared that his behavior, if nothing else, would be permanently altered if they continued to ostracize him.
Coincidentally, I have historically kept placentas on hand for a week in my barn refrigerator in the event that bonding is slow or poor. If bonding does not occur immediately, one can rub a little of the dam's placenta on her cria and she will most often accept the cria. I have done this a few times and I think it has helped significantly. This is particularly helpful with maidens. Although who has the ability to refrigerate placentas and for how long? It makes sense that a spoiled placenta could be unappealing to both mom and cria if it is retained for too long. Therefore, one consideration was to take a placenta from a new mom and rub it on Cooper in order to graft him to that dam. However, my two dams in waiting were not due for another week or two, therefore this was not an option. I would have to work with the prospective dams that already had crias at their side.
I was actually moved to tears as I witnessed Cooper
attempting to nurse his shadow on the wall."
During one of my 2:00 a.m. nighttime feedings, I was actually moved to tears as I witnessed Cooper attempting to nurse his shadow on the wall. I have never been so saddened by witnessing this little life with no mother. He was so ostracized and ignored by all. On the Altiplano, he surely would not have made it this far. I swallowed my tears and proceeded to get through the feeding. Had to simply acknowledge that if he had been born in South America, neither he nor his mom would be alive at this point.
We made several attempts to test the limits of each dam. We held each one and allowed Cooper time to explore nursing. Few were receptive, but a couple showed interest. We distracted their natural cria during this time. Having never really nursed a dam on his own, it was a challenge for him to start with. Given the reluctance of the foster dams, our prospects looked bleak. After several days of consistent effort, we obviously stressed out the dams and had no luck with identifying a willing prospect.
Pictures for closeup
By the sixth day, things started to change. I identified another dam by the name of Dusty, who began to show slightly more interest in Cooper's activities. I held her so the Cooper could nurse. She refused (like the other dams) but was not quite as nasty as the others. Dusty was a first-time huacaya dam with a three-week old cria at her side. She had a very gentle demeanor. I crossed my fingers and continued to supplement with tube feeding immediately after each short nursing session between the two. While keeping Cooper and Dusty together at all times, I continued to introduce the two every few hours. I then placed Cooper in a sheltered catch pen along with her natural cria at nights.
To improve bonding, I introduced the Cria Coat Technique. Placing a cria coat on Dusty's natural cria, we were able to get her own cria's scent on the coat. I turned the coat inside-out in order to completely saturate it with her scent and left it on her for a day. I then turned the coat inside out (scent side out) and placed it on Cooper. I then placed all three alpacas in a small pen every evening so the Cooper was forced closer to this dam. I sat back and observed.
Success - Somewhat
2:00 a.m. - I walked out into the shelter for the usual 2:00 a.m. feeding and to my surprise, I found that Cooper was nursing on Dusty! She was relaxed and allowing him to nurse freely. I was elated, certain that I was blessed from above and amazed that this had actually taken place. So now he was nursing, but she would not allow him to nurse for long. I continued to supplement by tube feeding and weighed him daily to ensure that he would consistently gain weight.
Unfortunately, within a couple of days Dusty had backed off a bit from allowing him to nurse. So, I repeat the cria coat technique to get the smell of Dusty's natural cria back on to Cooper once again. We repeated this process and were amazed at the immediate results. I am convinced that much of their bonding is based on smell.
Once we determined that Dusty was accepting Cooper once again, I continued to reinforce their bond with the cria coat technique whenever necessary. If I recognized that her interest decreased at any point I repeated the routine. Each time they would get right back on track.
Another successful technique used with Cooper and Dusty in the first month was to reach under Dusty and retrieve a bit of milk from her utter and then rub it on Cooper's face. Initially, we would gently restrained Dusty. She would smell him and again relaxed a bit more. His nursing intervals began to extend past three to five minutes. Rubbing milk on her natural cria and then on the orphan seemed to work well to reduce the stress between all of them.
Over the first couple of months, Cooper continued to struggle to gain weight. His energy was cyclic and he would have up days and down days. I enrolled my friends, neighbors, and ranch hands to help out when available. Concerned parties would e-mail me and ask how Cooper was doing. I was hesitant to reply when he had a bad day. I simply kept in mind that each day we kept him alive was progress.
Naturally, Dusty could not avoid her underlying preference for her own cria and there were times when Cooper was an outcast for the day. The seesaw effect took a toll on his health and mine. One week when I was tapering down his tube feedings, intervention was required because of an imbalance in his electrolytes. An IV was required to correct this disparity. One day of infusion and he was returned to Dusty and her cria. Initially, she ignored h8im, then the cria coat technique got them both back on track in less than a day.
Cooper is now over three months old. I am supplementing his tube feeding two times a day. Cooper is convinced that Dusty is his mom and he is always by her side. Dusty whines loudly when we removed Cooper to weigh him, so the bonding apparently is now reciprocal. To continue to reinforce this bond, we keep the three of them in a small pen every night. Throughout the day, Dusty and her two crias feed and sleep next to each other in the pasture. There is obviously a special bond between all of them.
Pictures for closeup
Even so, Dusty often favors her own cria with invitations to nurse. We also observe that her natural cria milks her out very efficiently and often there is little milk for Cooper when she is through. You might say that Cooper gets the crumbs. Yet, he still gets in there and makes the effort. Grafting a cria to a dam is not only important for nutritional needs; it also has a positive effect on their behavior. This allows alpaca crias to bond and imprint on adult alpacas and not on people. Despite the fact that most often, Cooper get a minimal level of nutrition from Dusty, the behavior benefits are crucial to normal alpaca development.
Cooper has discovered a nursing technique on his own that allows Dusty to nurse both crias at the same time. Typically, she smells her natural cria's tail and allows for nursing. Then, Cooper slips in behind the natural cria on the same side. This is their normal nursing posture. Seldom does he nurse on the opposite side of the natural cria, although we have seen this, too.
It is also important to monitor the weight and supplement the foster dam heavily because she is nursing two crias. Nursing two crias can easily deplete the dam if not monitored daily. Dusty's weight started to drop rapidly after about two weeks of nursing both crias. We quickly focused on efforts to improve her weight and nutrition. I feed her a higher protein grass hay and calcium diet during the day, then minerals and alfalfa in the evenings. We use the Distraction Technique with the dam by offering supplemental pellets at least once a day. This presents Cooper with additional opportunities to nurse.
Cooper was slow to show interest in grass feed, either leaf or pellet until about three months age. We recently decided to grind up some grass and place it into his mouth - he demonstrated some interest in grass at around twelve weeks of age and now he has his head in the grass bin daily. However, do not be fooled by a young cria's interest and ingestion of hay and grasses. This is simply not enough for normal growth and is basic exploration during the first few months. While encouraging a young cria under 90 days to eat grasses, keep in mind that it cannot process this grass effectively at this age. In fact, Dr. Ty McConnel, DVM, states that a cria under 16 weeks of age has an immature digestive tract and is unable to properly digest and utilize complex hay and grains.
Today, we utilize a creep feeder for both of the crias so that they can access hay and small pellet grass feed with minerals. Even so, we realize that real fresh grass is the best nutrition for alpacas, therefore we allow the three of them to graze daily. Augmenting milk with grasses appears to be a successful formula. As soon as the cria starts eating grasses, there will be less demands placed on the dam. With Cooper, each step has been a hurdle and an accomplishment as well.
to graft a cria to a dam with a natural cria by her side
an interested dam –- do not rule out
first time mothers|
to small pen until bonding takes place
– reinforce this daily at
sure that the foster dam has access to
view other alpacas. If this can not be
done, place another 2nd choice dam and
cria in the pen
with 1st choice dam, cria, and orphan.|
coat technique (several times as
supplemental feedings to nursing dam
and monitor weight.|
on face technique, place on natural
cria as well for paired recognition|
technique with dam by feeding pellets,
which allows orphan to feed more
weight of orphan daily.|
above techniques, but add placenta
technique if a prospective dam has
delivered within 48 hours of orphan
About the Authors
Ken and Victoria Hibbits own Alpacas By The Sea in Montara, California. They both worked in the medical device industry for over 15
|| Victoria is presently a Director of National Accounts working for a leading Ultrasound company in Silicon Valley, and is also a former ARI Phenotypic Screener. She has held board positions with both AOBA and
Calpaca. Ken is an executive recruiter based in San Francisco. The Hibbits have enjoyed alpacas since 1991 and currently manage a herd of around 65. They can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 728-LUCK.