5 Steps to a Successful Unpacking Season

Some may have started unpacking already, while others are waiting until later this summer, but all of us are looking forward to having lots of healthy, happy cria bounding around the fields again.

Unpacking, though exciting, can be a little (or a lot!) tiring, and seems to come around quickly each year, so in this article, I hope to relay some gentle reminders and helpful tips to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible for all alpaca and llama owners gearing up for the season.

  1. Getting Kitted Out

Something that can be genuinely life-saving is having a birthing kit prepared, to be grabbed at a moment’s notice. In that kit, you may have medicines ranging from vitamins, to pain relief/anti-inflammatory, to antibiotic. Your vet may not be able to dispense these medications ‘as and when’ without a visit (as they must certify your animals ‘under their care’), so it pays to ensure you have had a consultation with your vet, so you may keep medicines on the premises for when you need them most.

As for what else should feature in the kit, consider small lambing ropes, a lambing snare (protected wire to help safely align the head), disinfectant, clean water, scissors, towels, a clamp for a bleeding umbilicus, an oesophageal feeding tube (such as for lambs), long-armed gloves, iodine for naval dipping, lots of lubricant (lube bottles with a long spout are most useful), a headtorch, your vet’s telephone number and some plastic sheeting (in case of a uterine prolapse, you can keep it clean on the sheet until a vet arrives). If you are unsure how to safely use ropes and a snare, ask for a demonstration from you vet beforehand.

  1. Consider Plasma Banking

Though we hope that all cria will be born fighting fit, and that the hembra will have enough good quality colostrum for them, it sometimes transpires that the cria does not get enough colostrum, or the colostrum is not of sufficient quality to convey vital antibodies to diseases. In this case, a cria may have failure of passive transfer (FPT) of immunity. FPT cria are best treated with an intravenous infusion of plasma that has been spun down from the blood of vaccinated, healthy, usually male alpacas on your farm. Plasma is also indicated for premature cria after a difficult birth, for those with congenital defects such as cleft palate, and in cases of mismothering. Ask your vet if they can provide this service prior to unpacking, to allow you to stockpile an adequate supply of frozen plasma, which can be stored for up to 2 years.

Cria in lateral waiting for transfusion

  1. The back-up plan

If plasma banking is not available to you, there are still ways you can supplement cria if they are not feeding appropriately. Cria must consume 10-20% of their bodyweight in the first 24 hours of life (over two hourly feeds), with a golden window for absorbtion of vital antibodies in the first 8 hours. Keep track of the cria’s weight from the day of birth onwards. If it appears the cria is not getting this from the hembra (sometimes indicated by vocalising, increased attempts to feed, or not swallowing during nursing), then you may need to bottle, or even tube feed an alternative. Goats colostrum and milk is the most common alternative, though if you are sourcing this from a farm, please ensure that it is from a Johne’s disease free source. Again, if you are unsure how to safely tube feed, as for a demonstration ahead of time.

  1. When to call a vet

Though many camelid owners are very experienced with unpacking, it’s worth knowing when veterinary intervention is required. As we expect most unpacking to occur between 10am and 2pm, anything outside that time is worth investigating. Keep in mind once the hembra is actively labouring, some progress should be made every 15 minutes; and cria should be delivered within 45 minutes. If, for example, only one leg is visible for more than 15 minutes, this warrants gentle investigation with a well-lubricated, gloved hand. Check whether the other leg is simply tucked up against the pelvis and holding up the process – can this be carefully brought round, guarding the delicate walls of the uterus from the foot? Is the head within reach? Labour cannot progress without the head being in position; upright and between the feet. Shoulder lock is the most common cause of cria becoming stuck, which can require gentle rotation of the cria. If you do not feel able to correct the cria’s position, this may need to be done under epidural by your vet. If you are unsure of whether you have a back or front foot, remember that the first two joints of the foot bend the same way on the forelimbs (making a ‘U’ shape), and opposite ways on hindlimbs (making a ‘Z’) shape. If you have a cria coming backwards (back legs, or rump first), it may be sensible to speak with your vet, as backwards delivery is more difficult and can compromise the cria’s breathing. If you are sure that labour is occurring but the hembra isn’t open normally, she may have a uterine torsion, which requires veterinary intervention. If you feel that everything is now in the correct position, back away and allow the hembra to progress naturally – pulling on a cria can cause damage to the uterus and vaginal tissues, or bring about a prolapse. If ever in doubt, speak with your vet, who will be able to guide you – the camelid reproductive tract is fragile, so it is better to err on the side of caution always.

Mother with cria

  1. The Aftermath

After the cria is delivered, check membranes and mucus are cleared from the nose. Do not be tempted to ‘swing’ the cria or hang it over a gate – this compresses the lungs. Place the cria so it is lying on its sternum (breast bone) and rub the sides of the chest with a towel to stimulate breathing. Cleanly and carefully check for any damage (tears or bruising) to the vaginal tissue – this may require veterinary examination, or the administration of antibiotics and pain relief. If you do note damage and excess bleeding, applying pressure with clean, damp gauze can help before your vet arrives. Check also for a rare twin. Don’t be tempted to pull on the placenta just yet – this should be passed in its entirety within 6 hours of birth. If this has not happened, or you have checked it and it is not entire (it is essentially a sack that envelopes the whole cria, so shouldn’t have jagged pieces missing), then you may need your vet to check the hembra and potentially administer medicines to help her pass the remnants.

Preparation, as always, is key to the smooth running of the unpacking season, but in the event that you are unsure about how to handle unpacking, from labour to lifelong care, don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian to put a bespoke birthing and health plan in place. Here’s to a productive and stress-free season ahead – good luck!

Written by Ami Sawran BVSc MRCVS

Ami Sawran is the head of the Small Ruminant and Camelid Working Group for Westpoint Farm Vets, and lead of VetPartners Camelid Special Interest Working Group.  She graduated from the University of Liverpool in 2011 and works in 100% farm animal practice for Westpoint Farm Vets in Chelmsford, Essex. Ami is currently working towards her Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice in camelids.