The ‘Normal’ Unpacking

The most exciting and nerve-wracking time of year is almost upon us, and we are probably all in agreement that the fields could do with some cria bouncing around to cheer the place up.

One hopes that in all the chaos lately, that everyone has managed to get a hold of the essentials for the birthing kit: disinfectant, clean buckets, a lambing snare (protected wire to help safely align the head), towels, a clamp for umbilical stumps, a lamb oesophageal feeding tube, 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 (to keep a uterus clean in the event of a prolapse). Medications such as anti-inflammatories, vitamins and antibiotics must be acquired on prescription from your vet, so do aim to get them in good time, particularly as there are some understandable hold-ups in deliveries at present. If you are all set, all that remains now is to watch and wait!

Dam and cria

Normal unpacking generally occurs in daylight hours (around 10am to 2pm). The first stage of labour looks like general discomfort in alpaca; they may separate from the herd, vocalise more and make repeated trips to the dung pile. This can last from 1-6 hours, but if you have a gut feeling that something may not be right, do trust your instinct and either check the dam or call for veterinary advice.

Stage two is where the ‘action’ happens. This stage, usually lasting up to an hour, is where the dam will either lie, stand or squat, and makes efforts to expel the cria. One rule of thumb is that there should be progression every 15 minutes. If no obvious advancement is made in that time frame, a gentle, calm investigation (with a well-lubricated and gloved hand) could give an indication as to whether the position of the cria is normal. A ‘normal’ presentation is the front legs coming first, with the head in between, and in an upright position. 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. Anything other than this may require some help; whether that is lightly adjusting a folded foot, taking care to guard the uterus as you do so, or more intricate manipulation of the head into the right place, or delivery of a breech (backward) cria. Correction of some malpositions can be risky for the dam; having quite a delicate uterus, and it is important to take swift advice from your vet as to whether the dam requires treatment under epidural. Please do not be afraid to call your vet if you are at all concerned – many vets would much prefer getting on the road and having to turn around because the cria delivered itself, to getting on to farm too late for a positive outcome.

All being well, cria should be on the ground within an hour of stage two labour. The dam then enters stage three, where she passes the placenta. This usually happens within four hours, but if not passed (in its entirety –do check for missing pieces) in six hours, then please consult your vet, as you may need to monitor the dam more closely or commence a treatment plan.

Once your cria is safely unpacked, there are a few checks to undertake – make sure to remove membranes from the nose and mouth, and though it may be obvious, do check for heartbeat and breathing. Sometimes breaths need a kick-start with some straw up the nose. Do not be tempted to swing the cria, as this can compress the lungs. Instead, place it on its chest, and move all four limbs so that they point forward (like a sphynx with straight back legs pointing forwards). This is the best position for lung expansion. If the cria has had a difficult birth or been stuck, it could be a candidate for plasma transfusion, which should be discussed with your vet. Dip the navel in your chosen disinfectant, and clamp gently if bleeding.

A cria should also be checked to ensure it has a patent anus, that it has normal genitalia, allowing it to urinate, and that its face is straight, with patent nostrils that allow airflow through both sides. You can check airflow with a mirror, or with a wisp of fibre in front of the nostrils. Issues such as lax or contracted tendons should be identified, and the jaw checked for alignment, taking care to feel the palate is intact in the mouth too. Any suspected defects are best reported to your vet so they can advise on prognosis and care.

If the birth has passed without event, the dam should not need treatment. It is wise to check for any tears or bruising (that may warrant anything from pain relief to veterinary attention) and to check for an elusive twin (you never know!). Check the udder for any heat, pain, hardness or swelling, and that colostrum is coming in, else you may need to supplement the cria.

Cria absolutely must take on colostrum within the first 6 hours of life. Colostrum provides the building blocks for the immune system, and these cannot be absorbed via the gut reliably after this window. Of course, alpaca colostrum is the ideal source, but if you have to seek alternatives, goat colostrum (from Johne’s disease free herds) is the next best thing, followed by lamb colostrum. It may be if the cria has not gotten adequate colostrum, that a plasma transfusion is necessary.

Here’s to hoping your unpacking season passes without incident, and that you have lots of lovely cria and healthy dams to show for it, but as always, please do not hesitate to seek veterinary advice if you are unsure about anything at all. It should be noted that at this time, though vets are absolutely available for animal welfare emergencies, that you must take steps to ensure social distancing is maintained if your vet attends any of your animals. Getting the girls halter trained is the first step to this, but also do be prepared that animals may need sedation to keep them still for any in depth procedures. This is to keep us all as safe as possible. Good luck this season!

Written by Ami Sawran BVSc CertAVP PhD MRCVS