The Camelid Winter Checklist

Though we have fought valiantly through possibly the strangest summer of our lives, we must look to winter and think about how our alpacas and llamas will fare in wetter, colder weather.

Preparation, and shifting our priorities to winter husbandry tasks will help set all camelid keepers in good stead for declining temperatures and higher nutritional demands.

Many camelid-based veterinary calls are made over winter during or just after fluctuations in temperature and even the wind. Given our changeable climate over the past few years, it is likely that we will be able to rely less on seasonality, making preparation difficult! Nevertheless, here are some pointers to help equip you and your camelids for the winter. 

1. Is your water supply weatherproofed?

Camelids, though hardy, are not adept at ice breaking; whether you have mains water or fill troughs and buckets daily, all water sources will need to be checked regularly.  Also check that your mains supply is adequately weather protected. Dehydrated animals are vulnerable to impaction colic.

2. Condition score your herd

For every season, I like for owners to compile a ‘healthcare hit list’, detailing the animals that may need extra TLC to weather that risk period. In winter, animals on that list would be particularly old, very young, just weaned, females still lactating or just post-weaning, those with a history of illness and animals with poorer body condition score. Condition score (ranging from 1-5, with 1 – extremely thin and 5 – obese) is assessed by feeling the spine behind the ribs, and camelids should generally be scored at 3/5. Your vet should be able to demonstrate the technique for you. It is recommended to condition score at least quarterly – once scored, you will have a list of animals that could stand to lose condition, and those that may need to make some gains, and you can tailor their feeding appropriately. 

3. Identify reasons for poor condition

Animals can be thinner than the rest of their cohort for many reasons, including but not limited to:

Bullying – subordinate animals are bullied out of trough and shelter space. Make sure your shelter(s) allow for enough space for everyone (particularly in entranceways), and that troughs are set up so as not to exclude lower ranking animals.

Parasites – gut worms and coccidia have been prevalent over summer and are the main reason for condition loss. Unlike with other species, they do not always cause concurrent diarrhoea, but still leech condition and prevent nutrient absorption in the gut. Taking regular faecal samples is an ideal way to track parasite activity, as is FAMACHA scoring the mucous membranes around the eyes. Take veterinary advice on which animals to sample and on interpreting results for optimal treatment.

Teeth and toes – lame animals are less able to get to troughs in time or may be sore to stand and feed. Just as animals with overgrown or missing teeth may not be able to pick up and chew food efficiently. Checking teeth and toes can be done while condition scoring.

Disease – many different infectious diseases can manifest as wasting/ ill-thrift, so any animals that give cause for concern should have a veterinary exam.

4. Supplementation

Ad-lib hay is essential for all camelids in winter, as availability and quality of dry grass is unpredictable. Increasing condition must be done especially carefully, and this is best bolstered with good quality forage – not by simply increasing concentrate feed, as this can lead to gut issues. Aim to keep concentrate as less than 30% of the diet.   Any new feeding regimes should be gradually introduced. There are plenty of alternative forages for helping to bulk up poorer conditioned animals- grass cubes or alfalfa-based forages are particularly helpful, and your vet may have further advice.

5. Supplement Vitamin D

As ancient residents of more equatorial, higher plains, camelids do not get as much of an opportunity to synthesise vitamin D in Britain. Therefore, we recommend supplementation with Vitamin D, even if present in their feed supplements. Injectable forms should be given every 8 weeks from October-April to prevent painful rickets developing. Oral pastes are also available, with different dosing schedules, so please discuss your optimal regime with your vet.

Written by Dr Ami Sawran BVSc CertAVP PhD MRCVS