Saturday, January 4, 2014

Caring for the Elderly Llama (or Alpaca)

I'd been struggling the past week or so with what I should write about for my next blog post.  Then as I was outside this morning feeding April, I got my inspiration!  I've already written a post about cold-weather care, but nothing about caring for an older llama or alpaca.


At the 2013 GALA Conference back in November, one of the vets mentioned that she likes to start "senior" care for lamas when they hit about 10 years old.  The average lifespan of a lama is 15-25 years, so that makes sense.  I've been doing "senior care" for two of my llamas for the past 8 years or so.  April is going to be 20 in the spring, and Duque will be 17.  I will give a disclaimer that caring for senior lamas can be very time consuming and expensive, but for me it is worth it!

I'm going to break the topic down into a few categories, to make it easier to follow...


Arthritis (or other physical/conformational issues) is fairly common in older lamas.  Just like humans, they get to the point where they are stiffer in the cold, and they are slower to get up and walk around. Dropped pasterns are also a big issue, especially for geldings (neutered males) or overweight animals.    (The lower amounts of testosterone in gelded males is thought to contribute to the breakdown of the pastern tendons.)  Unfortunately neither dropped pasterns nor arthritis can be treated, but they can be managed.

Duque's dropped front pasterns.

For dropped pasterns (and other tendon issues), there are a number of supplements that can be given.  There is an herbal supplement designed for llamas that is supposed to somewhat reverse the effects of dropped pasterns, but it didn't really work for Duque.  Plus it is a fine powder, which was impossible to get him to eat!  In regards to supplements, I have started using those formulated for horses, and giving 1/3-1/2 of the horse dose for a llama (roughly 300-350 lbs).  There are several tendon supplements for horses as well, and some come in pelleted form.

For arthritis, the common supplements are glucosamine and chondroitin (also commonly taken by humans and given to dogs).  There are also lots of joint supplements available for horses, as well as an arthritis supplement for llamas.  In severe cases, injections of glucosamine/chondroitin can be given, as well as pain meds (banamine or bute).

Duque has had dropped pasterns for several years.  He comes from a bloodline where this is common,  is a gelding (has lower testosterone than intact males), and has been overweight for most of his life.  His pasterns started dropping when he was only 5-6 years old, and thus had to be retired early from the show ring.  Now that he is almost 17 years old, he doesn't like to stand for long periods of time and he walks rather slow.  There are days that I really worry about him, but the next day he will run around the pasture with the young animals so I have to make myself stop worrying!  Duque has been on glucosamine and chondroitin supplements for horses for years.  I currently have him on a 1/2 dose of SmartFlex III Resilience Pellets.  It is hard for me to tell whether or not they are working, but I'm afraid to take him off them completely so I'm just going to keep feeding them!  The nice thing about the pellets is that they are very easy to get him to eat.

Miraculously, at the ripe old age of 20, April has still yet to show any signs of arthritis.  I'm amazed, and will consider to count my blessings in this regard!


It may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but obesity can be a big issue in older llamas.  They don't move around as much, they tend to get babied more (aka extra/better feed!), and the weight just packs on.  Being overweight can be just as detrimental to their health as being underweight, and it is a lot harder to fix!

The best way to get weight off a lama is exercise!  Take them for hikes if you can (gradually building up time and distance), or put them in a big pasture.  One great tip I heard was to put their hay and water at the opposite end of the pasture as the shelter, so that they had to walk back and forth frequently.

Duque going for a hike!

If exercise isn't a viable option (such as an old llama with bad pasterns or arthritis), you will have to cut their feed.  A normal lama needs 2-3% of its body weight in roughage (grass/hay) daily, but if you have an overweight animal they can survive on 1-1.5%.  Personally I think the key is to reduce both the amount and the quality of the hay they are given.  I prefer to give 1.5-2% of their body weight in a first cut, stemmy hay (with low protein- under 10%).  Eliminate grain, just offer free choice minerals and fresh water.  Make them clean up all their hay before you feed more.  Obviously this is a lot easier to do in the winter when they aren't on pasture, but it can also be done during warm weather.  You can dry-lot the obese animal (put on a pasture with little to no grass), or lock them in a stall and only give them a few hours outside to graze.  It may sound mean, but getting the weight off is imperative to their health!

Duque (and several of my younger llamas) has battled obesity for most of his life.  My mom really liked to feed the lamas grain every day, whether they needed it or not.  At his worst, Duque got up to about 400lbs.  After moving to the new farm in August, he has since lost about 20 pounds by limiting his grazing and feeding low-protein hay.  Now at a slim 330 lbs, he is where he should be!  I'm back to feeding him a bit of grain every day so that he doesn't lose more weight.

Duque during his "fat" years.


After having April on my farm for almost 14 years now, I feel like I'm an expert when it comes to feeding underweight lamas!  April has always been really thin (I think she just has a really quick metabolism), and it has been a challenge to keep her at a good weight, especially now that she is quite old.

The only way to put weight on a thin lama is feed, feed, FEED!  And you also need to look at how you are feeding: a lot of thin lamas are at the bottom of the pecking order within the herd, so they are often the last to eat.  It is imperative to separate any thin lama while they eat, so that they aren't bullied.

April eating in her pen.

There are a ton of different feeds that you can give a thin lama to encourage weight gain.  The foundation of your feeding program for an underweight animal is a high quality hay, preferably with a bit of alfalfa.  I would aim for something with at least 14% protein if you can.  Feed this high quality hay free-choice, so that they can eat as much as they wish.  The second most important feed to give is a good llama/alpaca supplement (also referred to as grain or pellets).  Again you want something with high protein.  Follow the feeding guidelines for the supplement, but you could feed an extra 0.5-1.5lbs of the supplement daily.

Next comes the long list of add-ins...  My favorite is Calf-Manna, a high protein supplement designed for a variety of livestock.  Our old vet said we could safely feed 2lbs of Calf-Manna daily without having to worry about copper toxicity.  April has been on at least 1lb daily for the past 10 or so years, and she seems just fine!  Something new that my new vet recommended was rice or wheat bran.  It is high in protein and fat.  It comes in many forms, commonly oil and pellets.  I chose to give April the pellets (manufactured by Manna Pro), since I didn't think she would eat the oil.  I'm giving her 1/3 of the horse dose.  After doing a bit more research this fall, I decided to start April on alfalfa pellets and beet pulp.  Both are supposed to be great for weight gain.  Due to a recent choking episode, I chose to soak the pellet mixture in water to re-hydrate them before feeding.  It took a few days, but she eventually learned to eat them.  And now that it is cold I soak them in boiling water to make a warm mash.  It is hard to measure the pellets since they expand after soaking, but I figure she gets about 1/2lb of a 50:50 mix daily.  I also recently decided to try adding a little bit of oil to the mash mixture...I had recommendations for corn, soybean, and canola oil.  I've read that you can feed up to 1/4c daily, but work up to that amount slowly.  April got 1T today (day 1 of adding it in).

Alfalfa pellet/beet pulp mix, before re-hydrating.

There are still more things that you can feed underweight lamas!  Some people swear by corn or oats, but I don't like that they appear to pass undigested.  I've heard recommendations for Equine Senior (a horse feed), but it has much higher copper than Calf-Manna.  I've also heard a lot about Chaffaye (sp?), which I believe is shredded hay with molasses.  I just can't find any local!


A lot of older lamas have issues with the cold and heat.  Luckily my 2 do fine in the heat, but they both get very cold in the winter.  Now they both have insulated coats to wear, and I put them on at the first sign of shivering.  April will end up wearing hers most of the winter, while Duque can tolerate a bit more cold.

April in her awesome coat!

When it comes to heat intolerance, there are a few simple tricks to keep them cool.  Shearing is a must, as is fresh cold water.  Fans and shade are also important.  If it gets really hot I like to hose their bellies off to cool them down.

There are also a few tricks for cold intolerance.  Lots of good food (hay generates more body heat as it digests than pellet/grain supplements), shelter from the wind, deep hay/straw bedding to lay on, fresh warm water, and blanketing if necessary are just a few suggestions.  For more in-depth explanations, see my previous post.

Duque in his less than awesome coat (but it still keeps him warmer than without it!).


Just like horses (and any animal really), a lama's teeth can decline rapidly with old age, and us owners usually have no idea!  I only recently discovered that April has no front teeth, so I can only imagine what her molars look like!  I've definitely started to realize the importance of having a vet (or doing it yourself, if your lama will allow it!) check out the lama's teeth every year or so.  Uneven chewing can cause sharp points, which can be easily filed down.  Weight loss in older lamas is often caused by bad teeth.  If you've ever seen small piles of half-chewed hay around your feeders, you most definitely have an animal with teeth issues.  The front teeth can also get too long, interfering with grazing.

Duque and his long teeth.  Luckily they aren't quite long enough to warrant trimming.


Older animals are more susceptible to parasite infections than younger animals, and it will usually take them longer to recover after treatment.  I would pay special attention to doing regular fecals on older lamas, and would probably treat if they had a lower level than a young adult did.  I'm also starting to think that regular probiotic supplementation would be a good idea, to support the good bacteria in the gut.

View through the microscope of a fecal exam.  In the center (grey spot) is a nematodirus egg.


As I mentioned before, feeding and caring for an older lama is neither cheap nor easy.  I spend longer waiting for April to eat her food (in a separate pen) than it takes me to clean the entire barn and pasture each day.  I spend more on Duque's tendon/arthritis meds and 5 different types of feed for April than I do buying hay and grain for the entire group of 5 lamas!  But they have given me a lot of pleasure and joy over the years, so I feel like it is the least I can do for them.  I am realistic though, and if either one gets to the point where they are suffering, I will do the humane thing and let them go.  As much as I hate to think about it, Duque will certainly go lame in the next few years, so I know that hard decision is waiting for me.  Luckily I think April will be around for a good long while!



johnston-sharon said...

Thank you for this informative info on elderly llamas. Two of my 6 llamas are seniors, female 24 or 25 yrs now, and gelding 23 yrs. Female I noticed shivering this winter during a storm (CA) & was wondering if I could put a blanket on a llama, plus she is getting arthritic in hip, slight limp on cold days and didn't know what a could give a llama. My gelding has been leaving wads of chewed hay around, so I just started giving llama pellets to his feed 2x day, plus Misha also since both are thin now. This article was quite helpful. I have really worried about my 2 seniors and proper care that this stage of their lives. They act healthy & content so I'd like to give them a good life at this endstage of their years. Any other suggestions you would would be great.

johnston-sharon said...

I have one more question on the blankets... are you using pony blankets or what to fit a llama? I think I need to get a blanket for my senior female who shivers now when it gets cold (not too often here in Northern CA, but occas.)

Emaly said...

You can definitely put a blanket on your llama. I've seen people use blankets or quilts and duct tape them on the llama (around the chest and around the belly). For more frequent use I would probably sew ties onto the chest and belly. I coat my llamas often enough that I bought llama coats for them. You can use pony or foal coats, but they don't fit as well. I have used coats from Useful Lama Items and Llama Hardware. For extreme cold I like the Llama Hardware coats the best. As for arthritis, I would suggest looking at a horse supplement (Smart Pak Equine or Valley Vet carry them). I give my old gelding a joint supplement that has glucosamine. It seems to work well, and the vet recommends that I give it. I hope this helps! Please let me know if you have any other questions.


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for an informative blog. I have recently rescued 3 elderly llamas (all definitely over 20yrs old) this coming from a women that had books on taking care of them in 1996. Unfourtantley one has past but I think for him he might have been better off he had severe arthritis and all four of his legs looked like dropped pasterns, the two males were gelded. Thank you to your blog I realize I might be doing them an injustice by overfeeding them grains (about 1cup in morning and 1 cup at night) I also give them about a half of a flake twice a day. Is there any signs to tell if they are cold besides shivering? I thought putting a 55 gallon drum with a fire in there house would help but i learned quickly that was a dumb idea as the female who is also the boss leaned up against it and burned away alot of her hair

Emaly said...

Kudos to you for rescuing 3 elderly llamas...not everyone would do that. Feeding them grains is not necessarily a bad thing, and 2c is not too much. What types of grains were you feeding? They tend to do better with forage (or forage pellets) than grain, but grains aren't necessarily bad. Do they have pasture they can graze on, or is it too cold for that now? If there isn't any fresh grass they definitely need more hay, on average a llama needs 2 whole flakes every day. For seniors I like feeding soaked beet pulp or alfalfa pellets in addition to hay. It is easier for them to eat but is still a forage which they can digest easier. Shivering is really the only way to tell if they are cold. I tend to notice them shivering the easiest by looking at their back legs. They normally don't shiver all over unless it is very very cold.


The Jolly Rancher said...

I too thank you for this information. I have a llama that recently turned 12. I had no idea he would be considered a senior until a few weeks ago. I started noticing in the spring that anytime he was standing he would sway his back end to the left, and a few weeks ago I began noticing a definate change in his back left ankle with walking. No dropped pasterns at this point, but he is shifting weight in the back to the left, and in the front to the right. I spoke with a vet last week and he suggested arthritis right off the bat. It will be a task getting him to a vet, as we have no large animals vets in the county, let alone anyone that would know about llamas. So I have been reading diligently, anything I can find on the internet. I am making effort to provide for him from a geriatric stand point and wish to do anything within my means to comfort him. If you haven't figured it out yet, he is certainly a family member and not just an "old llama".

I am wondering, have you ever used Bute to ease with the arthritis pain? I recently started him on a 1/2 tab in the evening and saw obvious improvements by the next morning. I know this is a temporary fix for a long term problem, but after reading your article, I want to look into finding him a supplement for his joints. I plan to continue reading and find what would be in his best interest. Thank you again for your input, I am grateful to find you!!

Emaly said...

I've never used Bute, but I did recently put my gelding on meloxicam. The vet said it works like aspirin, but without the long-term effects that Bute has. He has been on it for a couple of months, and it really seems to be helping. All winter he would barely come in for his feed, but after starting the meloxicam he is waiting for me to feed him. And its pretty cheap too...

Good luck with your is frustrating when they get old, but they are definitely worth it!