Dr. Stephen Purdy is an adjunct associate professor of animal science at the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Purdy also heads the Nunoa Project, an organization which provides education and support for alpaca farmers, students and veterinarians in both the U.S. and Peru.
When Dr. Purdy is not busy with his programs, he spends time taking care of his own herd of alpacas. He has been raising and caring for alpacas since 1995 and currently has 30 animals on his Vermont farm.
For the past 10 years, he has served as a seminar instructor during the North American Alpaca Show which is held annually in West Springfield, MA. At this year’s show Dr. Purdy spoke on the topic of alpaca health.
With proper care alpacas typically have an average lifespan of 15 to 25 years. The longevity of an alpaca is based on sound management practices and several different factors which center around genetics, environment and nutrition.
Compared to other livestock alpacas are fairly low maintenance and are generally easy to look after. Daily care consists of watering, feeding and cleaning. Alpacas do not consume much water but should have regular access to clean water since they will refuse stale or dirty water.
Alpacas are browsers who eat most varieties of plant life, so their best and primary source of food should be pasture grass. One alpaca eats approximately two to three pounds of dry matter a day. If good pasture grass is not available, then good quality hay should be provided. Dr. Purdy recommends second cutting hay for reproducing females and young stock because it is higher in protein and calories.
A high-quality feed is important as well because it provides various vitamins and minerals. Dr. Purdy says if in doubt on whether or not the feed is good, let the animals decide. If it isn’t any good, then alpacas just won’t eat it. The only supplement Dr. Purdy uses is a balanced salt mix.
Alpacas require other basic care such as annual shearing, toenail trimming, vaccinations and deworming.
Learning about alpaca behavior is recommended because it will help make catching and handling easier and less traumatic. In the wild Alpacas are prey animals so they are naturally cautious and nervous when they feel threatened. Direct eye contact with alpacas should not be made because they will interpret this gesture as a threat. When an alpaca’s ears are facing down it signals concern and is a warning to back off. It is also helpful to know alpacas don’t like being separated from their herd.
The best way to approach alpacas is in a slow, calm and confident manner. Visual barriers such as lightweight poles extended horizontally or a rope held between two people can be used to help herd the animals. The goal should be to funnel alpacas into catch pens or other smaller spaces where they can be haltered. From there alpacas should be placed within a portable restraint chute where various procedures can be safely performed.
In their native Peru alpacas are used to temperatures ranging anywhere from 30 to 60 degrees Celsius but extreme heat and cold kill them. Extreme weather is an important reason to provide alpacas with adequate shelter. For shelter alpacas should have a barn or a three-sided shed which faces away from the wind and can be closed up during bad weather.
Within their housing alpacas need a layer of bedding such as hay or straw in order to lay down and keep insulated from the cold ground. This bedding is crucial for crias, because they don’t have as much fiber and might have more trouble staying warm.
Heat is usually more of a problem for alpacas than the cold so an adequate shelter will be especially important during the hot summer months. A combination of shade and adequate ventilation is necessary within the shelter in order for alpacas to effectively cool themselves and prevent heat stress. Fans blowing across the shelter at floor level is most effective because an alpaca’s thermal window is located at the belly area. The use of misters or water sprinklers is also effective.
Alpacas are herd animals that require the companionship of other alpacas to thrive. A healthy ratio is anywhere from five to 10 alpacas per acre of land. Malnutrition starts to crop up when a living space becomes overcrowded and some alpacas start to get thin despite having regular access to adequate food and water. It is not known exactly why this happens but the belief is that it’s related to stress associated from social hierarchy among the herd and lack of personal space boundaries.
According to Dr. Purdy a poor body condition score is a major indicator of overcrowding and is the number one management error among alpaca owners when not checked regularly.
An alpacas body condition score is determined by using a five-point scoring system. The body score testing is done by observing and feeling along an alpaca’s lower back musculature to see how thin or fat they are. Body condition scores of two and below or four and above are considered abnormal and represent extremely thin or fat animals, respectively.
Dr. Purdy points out if the whole herd has a score of one or two then it probably means there is a lack of nutrition. If only one or two alpacas have a low score, then it might mean they are sick. Dr. Purdy believes the best way to address varying conditions in a herd is by separating alpacas into small groups based on temperament, body size and body condition score. For especially thin alpacas Dr. Purdy suggests using Zantac tablets to stimulate their appetite and offering more free choice grain to eat.
Alpacas are extremely tolerant of their surroundings and generally very healthy animals but health issues do arise on occasion. Abnormal behavior such as lack of appetite or inactivity are early symptoms that an alpaca may be sick. In order to detect early signs of illness Dr. Purdy encourages alpaca owners to pay regular close attention to their animals so that they know the difference between normal and abnormal behavior.
Dr. Purdy believes management not medicine is the key to disease prevention and parasite control. One simple but effective management practice is keeping pastures, barns and water sources clean. Waste which is found in close proximity to food and water increases the chances alpacas may pick up various gastrointestinal parasites.
The meningeal worm is the parasite of concern among alpacas. It is carried by common slugs and snails and left behind on different plants. Alpacas can become infected when they ingest these plants while grazing. Stopping alpacas from grazing is not practical unless there is a lot of pasture which allows them to be rotated around. Picking up manure, not overcrowding and providing good nutrition is realistic.
Dr. Purdy also warns alpacas should be kept away from ponds, streams, swamps and muddy areas which tend to harbor slugs and snails. According to Dr. Purdy the only proven prevention program against this parasite is the administration of injectable ivermectin monthly during snail and slug season, which ranges from April to December in the Northeastern U.S.
Dr. Purdy believes regular vaccinations are also an excellent way to manage alpaca diseases because they stimulate the immune system to effectively react against invaders. Among the vaccinations he recommends are rabies, Clostridium perfringens type C and D, Clostridium Tetani (all yearly), and Leptospirosis (twice yearly).
For more information about Dr. Purdy and his programs visit his website at www.nunoaproject.org .