Alpacas are increasingly turning up all over the country – no longer seen as the playthings of eccentrics, but as popular pastimes, even pets. But do they make a good pet? Vet blogger Cassandra investigates…
Table of contents
What are alpacas?
With their peculiar, fluffy charm – gangly neck and legs, pointy ears, cleft toes and a super-soft coat, they are no relatives of sheep or any other more common “Old World” domestic animal. They are indeed from the “New World” (although these definitions sound a bit redundant by now), in particular from South America. Related to llamas, they are the domesticated version of the wild animal called vicuña.
Alpacas and vicuñas are the smaller cousins, with finer coat fibres, where llamas and guanacos are larger with a coarser coat. All of them are part of the Camelid family, which takes its name from camels – another cousin, together with dromedaries.
Although South American camelids don’t have humps, it is fairly easy to spot the similarities with the African and Asian counterparts. This is especially true when you look at their face. They all have big, mournful eyes with long eyelashes, a long neck and feet with two toes.
Their relationship to us is also similar. As most Camelids have been used at some point or other as pack, meat and fibre animals, with the South American ones are especially renowned for the fine quality of their coat fibres. Alpacas and vicuñas especially produce a very fine and soft fibre which is very unlike sheep’s wool in construction. It is used alone or mixed with other fibres to produce yarn and items of clothing that are hypoallergenic, really warm and kitten-soft. The very first downy hair on a baby alpaca’s (called a cria) nose is the softest fur you’ll ever stroke!
Alpacas as pets?
They graze grass and will eat hay in winter, they don’t often need hard feed especially if kept as field ornaments, and unless one is tempted by breeding, they will need limited vet input (twice a year is about average). There are specific requirements for the size of field they should live in, and we must never forget that they need shearing once a year: the UK climate is very different to what they would originally be used to on the Andean uplands – much wetter to start with!
They thrive in groups, so it would never do to buy one and keep it alone. Even when they have companionship of other species, they would suffer from not having interactions with others of their own.
They can’t be ridden but can be trained as lightweight pack animals. In fact, this is what they were originally domesticated for, and some owners run alpaca/llama walking farms. They produce lovely fibre which can be used for spinning, knitting, weaving and other crafts. Many alpaca farms started off as fibre producing enterprises, breeding high-value stock. Though they often diversify as petting farms or doing alpaca treks.
On the whole, alpacas and llamas are gentle and calm animals.
They thrive in herds as they have prey animals instincts so they will keep a lookout and can spook if frightened. At times, their attitude is shown by spitting at the threat and that is quite an unpleasant experience! However, when handled gently and often, they will become very friendly and unlikely to spit at the first occurrence of a strange noise or person appearing in their paddocks. They should be halter trained and handled often to keep them in the habit. This makes interactions easier and safer in case of an emergency or for routine examinations.
Alpacas and other camelids in general are known for being very good at protecting members of their herd, and often will happily include sheep or other small domestic animals under their watchful eye. They will chase, hiss and spit, kick and generally make such a racket that most predators tend to leave the field to go and find better luck elsewhere. Alpacas have been successfully employed to protect lambs from foxes, crows and even badgers, just by mixing 3-4 in the lambing field and letting them keep an eye on comings and goings.
Or are they pests?
Alpacas and Camelids in general can be dangerous animals to the uninitiated given their size and tendency to aggressively see off any newcomer that isn’t to their liking. Therefore only adults with a certain amount of experience should handle them and children should never be left unattended with any animal.
Although they don’t normally carry many zoonotic diseases (zoonotic = transmissible to humans), the most notable and perhaps one of the most dangerous in the UK has to be bovine tuberculosis (bTB). Camelids are very highly susceptible to this disease. Unfortunately there have been instances of them having transmitted it other livestock and people.
Alpaca owners need to be aware of the current regulations as set out by Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) when it comes to bTB control in camelids. For the most up to date information, you should always approach your own veterinary practice and APHA.
It would be hard to describe alpacas as falling under the common description for “pest”. They don’t ruin crops or invade barns or make a nuisance of themselves. They are better contained in their fields than many breeds of sheep or goats!
And although entire males at the time of breeding can certainly turn into sexual pests to any and all females of their herd, a sensible owner with no desire to breed would have them castrated so as to avoid these advances. As with all animals of every size, they need to be looked after with care, attention and knowledge, which should always be acquired before the animals arrive on your land.
Alpaca fun facts
- Because they chew the cud they are considered a functional ruminant, but anatomically they are not ruminants as technically they don’t have a rumen.
- They lie down on their abdomen to chew the cud, with all legs tucked in and under and this position is called “kush”.
- A baby alpaca or llama is called cria (crias in plural).
- The act of giving birth is “unpacking” (as opposed to lambing or calving in sheep and cattle).
- A female is called “hembra” and a male “macho”. A maiden is a female that has never bred.
- Crias are born after a pregnancy of about 11 months – give or take a few weeks! When born their mother makes soft noises (a kind of humming) to incite the cria on their feet, as they can only take their first milk when up and walking. They are fairly hands off mothers; unlike cows that lick and push their calves this way and that to get them moving, alpacas will mostly stand and watch, making sure no predators get too close, very gently prodding with their nose and humming so the cria can get bonded soon.
- They are vocal and sociable animals! Watch this video for examples of alpaca and llama noises
For any and all of your other burning questions on alpacas, visit the British Alpaca Society’s web site: https://www.bas-uk.com/alpacapedia/what-are-alpacas/
You may also be interested in;