When is a llama old?
From 12 to 15 years old may be a suitable cut-off for llamas.
Signs of ageing
Failure to maintain a satisfactory body condition score (i.e. score of 2.5 to 3 out of 5) or failure to gain weight after weight-loss
Long-term marked drop in body condition score
Loss of status in group
Reduced voluntary activity or stiffening gait
Difficulty changing from lying on side to sitting upright, or difficulty in rising
Slow re-growth of fibre after having been shorn
Disorientation when moved quickly or when moved into a new environment (NB : this is sometimes due to impaired hearing or sight e.g. cataracts)
How to support your ageing llama
While reduced activity with age means lower nutritional demand the ageing llama will absorb nutrients less well so always provide the best quality forage and consider offering some protein-rich feeds (e.g. clover-rich pastures, alfalfa or Readi-grass). If your llama struggles to maintain a good body condition you may have to add some concentrated feed. Also, make sure that you supplement them with the correct amount of minerals and vitamins.
Measure the body condition score at least once a month. Washing dung through a sieve is a good way to monitor how well food is digested: lots of undigested fibres or grains suggest poor digestion. Consistently unformed dung is cause for concern.
Tooth problems such as loss of teeth, malalignment and sharp edges are common in older animals, all leading to problems with feeding. Have the back teeth of older llamas checked regularly (e.g. once a year) or when you notice abnormal feeding behaviour such as quidding, dropping a cud or excessive salivation.
Observe an older llama’s interaction with others in the group and make a decision whether it would be better off in a smaller group or with less dominant animals. Provide plenty of feeding stations when offering supplements to give an older llama a chance to get its fair share.
The ageing llama will be less able to cope with extremes of temperature. Provide shelter from wind, rain and snow. T o avoid heat stress consider shearing and provide shade.
Regularly monitor ageing llamas for any worm burdens (e.g. have dung analysed in June, August and October, and when a llama is showing weight-loss). We often see a higher burden in older animals (probably due to lower immune-function). Any parasite burden will contribute to poor nutrient absorption.
With age the function of the immune-system declines. You may see repeated episodes of illness or a poor response to treatment. Avoid stress and challenges, such as mixing with lots of new animals, being in a large group or being exposed to rapid changes in weather or feed. Treat your llamas promptly if you are concerned.
Pains & Aches
Joint and spine problems such as osteoarthritis are common in older animals. At what age these set in depends to a certain degree on the conformation of the animal: an animal with poor conformation is likely to get problems at a younger age than one that has good conformation. Reduce the distance an aged llama has to walk by having shelter, food and water close by. Check how easy it is for an older llama to reach into feed and water troughs.
In an extensive study in Oregon dropped pasterns were seen in either juvenile llamas or those over 10 years old; age was a risk for developing this condition. The cause is still unclear because expected changes connected with trauma to the tendons were not seen in older llamas. Affected llamas did have lower copper levels and higher zinc and Vitamin D levels compared to unaffected llamas but the significance of this is not clear yet. (NB: Never supplement copper without establishing that your llama is deficient because overdosing may lead to severe toxicity).
There is no given cut-off after which to stop breeding and llamas do not appear to go through menopause. Fertility does decline with age, due to a combination of poorer nutritional status and increased occurrence of reproductive tract abnormalities (e.g. chronic infection). Base your decision on whether to continue breeding a female and how often on her ability to keep her body condition and recover from any mild weight loss during late pregnancy and lactation. Fibre re-growth after shearing is also a good indicator: if poor, do not breed. Aside from endangering the well-being of the female if you continue to breed a struggling dam the cria may struggle, as well. Colostrum quality if often poorer in older females and their milk yield may be insufficient as a result of udder changes and sub-optimal nutritional status.
Common age-related problems include reduced output and weakness of the heart muscle. Affected animals may breathe more rapidly or cough. You may notice a lower exercise capacity.
Tumours are typically more common in older animals. We have very little specific knowledge of tumours in llamas.
You may have to reach a decision on whether to carry out euthanasia in an older llama. In some cases it is obvious that the llama’s quality of life is no longer good. In other cases the signs are more subtle but your gut feeling and your knowledge of your animal are usually reliable guiding factors.
Do critically assess quality of life in an animal that has repeated episodes of illness, is very thin despite preferential feeding and parasite control or has difficulty moving.
Karin Mueller MVSc DCHP DECBHM MRCVS