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Cherokee Animal Clinic
P O Box 416
665 Johnson Street
Rusk, TX 75785
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Article copyright by Animal Welfare Information Center

The Camelidae family consists of a small family of mammalian animals. There are two members of Old World camels living in Africa and Asia--Arabian and the Bactrian, and four members of the New World camels living in South America--the llamas, vicunas, alpacas and guanacos. They are all very well adapted to their respective environments: the camels in harsh deserts of Africa and Asia; and their South American cousins inhabit the high altiplano and bush area of South America. Most of these species have been integrated into, and play very important roles in lives of the indigenous people. They have been traditionally used for transport of people and things, hides and fibers for clothing and other textile articles, and in many cases they supply meat and milk products, etc. The South American species are being raised in non-native countries for a variety of reasons: as pack animals, pets, guard animals for sheep ranges, and for fiber. Their biology, reproduction, disease susceptibility, behavior, and nutrition have not been studied to any great extent until fairly recently. Because there are now fairly high populations of these animals in the US and some other temperate countries, there has been more interest and need to understand their needs, in order to provide adequate housing, feed and veterinary care as they are moved from their native environments to new climates, etc.


Llamas are medium sized animals and can weigh up to 300 pounds. Males are somewhat larger than the females. They are used for fiber and as unusual pack animals in many countries around the world. Currently, they are being used for hauling carts and driving, pet therapy with elderly and disabled persons and as guard animals in large free-range sheep operations. They are environmentally sensitive and intelligent. They are also extremely gentle and used as pet therapy because of their calming effect. They seldom bite or butt and they have no horns, hooves, or claws to do injury. They are alert, curious, adaptable, and predictable with docile, disarming temperaments. They are adapted to high altitudes because their hemoglobin, a constituent of red blood cells, can absorb more oxygen than that of other mammals. Their red blood cells also have a longer life span than other mammals, an average of 235 days versus 100 days for humans.

Llamas were also used by the ancient Inca civilization in South America. Archeological evidence indicates that they have been domesticated for approximately 5,000 years. Many llamas and alpacas were sacrificed to the gods every year by the Incan culture. The meat would then be distributed to the crowds. Llamas were also an integral part of the Inca's workforce, contributing vastly to the building of their irrigation systems, roads, and temples. They were also used to carry loads in the Inca's mines.

Llamas are still used today by the indigenous peoples of South America for packing and transporting goods and for meat. Mostly the males are used as pack animal. They usually carry up to fifty pound loads. Stallions can carry up to 110-176 pounds for about 19 miles (a day's march for a llama). Male pack animals are not sheared. Their heavy wool coat acts as a saddle blanket by cushioning their loads. It has been suggested that the llamas were selectively bred as pack animals leading to a larger stronger animals than their wild parent. The females are sheared, but llama wool is inferior to the alpacas and is often used to make rope. (The alpaca has probably been selected and bred for wool and not as a pack animal.) Llamas only allow themselves to be loaded when they are part of a group. Llamas provide meat, wool, hides for sandals, and fat for candles. Their dung can be dried and used for fuel. South American herders use most parts of a llama's carcass.


Alpaca Baby Alpaca's roots also go back to the Inca civilization, where alpacas were considered a "prize." Their coats make the finest quality wool. Alpaca fiber was woven into robes used by Inca royalty. They also provided food, fuel, clothing, and transportation for this culture in an otherwise extremely hostile environment. Alpacas still thrive in the harsh climates of the Peruvian, Bolivian, and Chilean highlands where scorching temperatures in the day plummet to sub-freezing at night. They prefer low humidity and altitudes between 13,000 and 16,000 feet. At low altitudes, their wool is often of poorer quality. Nevertheless, they are well suited for conditions in the US and are being bred in at least 44 states (1997 estimates).

Alpacas are small compared to llamas, approximately 36" at the withers. Piebald color patterns are much rarer than in llamas, and alpacas usually have a tuft of hair on their forehead. Their life span is 15 to 25 years. Their weight can range between 100 to 175 pounds (approximately one-half to one-third the size of a llama). Their gestation period is approximately 11.5 months. Their birth weight is between 15 and 19 pounds and the babies (cria) can stand and nurse within 30 minutes to one hour after birth. They also have a very low infant mortality rate.

The males produce approximately eight pounds and the females about five pounds of easily marketable wool fiber from their coats per year. The fiber comes in approximately 22 basic colors with many variations and blends. It has a cellular structure similar to hair and is more resilient and much stronger than Merino sheep wool. It is highly sought after in Britain, Europe, and Japan. The cria fiber is extra fine and lustrous and commands a higher selling price. Their wool quality is only slightly lower than the vicuna. The black coats are usually the heaviest. The Suri breed has finer, thicker, and longer hair and provides up to eleven pounds of wool per year, but the breed has a greater susceptibility to parasites.

In South America, shearings are usually done every two years before the rainy season in November and December. After seven years of age, alpacas are used primarily for meat. In 1972, there were about two million living in Peru and 50,000 in Bolivia.

Alpacas are inexpensive to feed (about $1 per day per alpaca). This is about the same cost as a large dog. They have three stomachs which enable them to be very efficient at digesting what they eat. They are more fastidious feeders than llamas, being very Earth-friendly by grazing meticulously throughout the pasture. They prefer free range pasture to confinement in a stall or barn. They have sensitive feet and prefer soft, moist ground with tender grasses. They also enjoy pools and puddles for wallowing. A lack of adequate ground moisture is thought to lead to a fatal foot disease and rainless years often lead to higher mortality rates. No special food is required for them except in winter or in late pregnancy when all they need is good quality hay and low protein pellets. Alpacas will spit on one another if sufficiently angered, but will rarely spit on people.

One acre will provide ample room for five to ten alpacas, much more economical than most other types of livestock. Any fencing that may be required is usually to keep predators out of the pasture versus keeping the alpacas in. Simple shelters will suffice, usually only requiring a three-sided enclosure or a lean-to. Alpacas usually defecate in fixed areas and avoid grazing there, keeping parasitic infestations low. Their manure also makes an excellent fertilizer.

They have a high world market value between $8,500 and $25,000 per animal; a breeding age female goes for $15,000 to 25,000 (1997 estimates). The females can breed from about six months to one year of age and foal in the rainy season. In this country, they can be insured and depreciated from the owner's taxes. Other tax advantages include expense deductions and deferred recognition of accumulating wealth.

Where most alpacas, llamas, and mini-llamas are safe, quiet, and disease resistant, there are still some common diseases like any other animal. Some of these include:

  • Heat Stress
  • Stomach Ulcers
  • Esophageal Choke
  • Skin Problems
    • Sun Burn
    • Zinc Responsive Dermatosis
    • Bacterial and Fungal Skin Infections
    • External Parasites such as lice, ticks, etc.(uncommon)
  • Intestinal Parasites
    • Meningeal Worm Infection - most serious health hazard to alpacas and llamas wherever they live in proximity to white tail deer.
    • Tapeworms
    • Liver Flukes
    • Coccidia
  • Dental
    • Tooth Root Abscesses
    • Trimming Incisor Teeth - a commonly performed procedure for the sake of appearance and to restore a functional bite
    • Cutting Fighting Teeth - customarily performed on all males
    • Floating Cheek Teeth

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