Caring for Llamas

Llamas are some of the easiest animals to keep because they are hardy, stoical and generally very healthy animals.  However, all livestock should be checked at least once a day; spending a little time observing your animals and knowing their normal behaviour will help you to recognise if something is amiss. 

Space:  The general stocking rate is four llamas per acre but the minimum area for two llamas would still be an acre in order to give enough space for playing. 

Pasture: Fields need to be divided so that one side can be rested whilst the other is grazed.  This helps to provide grazing for longer whilst also keeping the worm burden in check.  (Further reduction in worms can be achieved by daily removal of dung.)  Llamas do well on grass that isn’t too lush.

Supplementary food:  For most llamas grazing and hay is enough to keep them healthy, with a mineral lick on hand to provide vitamins and minerals that may be missing from their forage. Depending on the quality of your pasture and hay supplementary feeding is not usually required, with the exception of pregnant and lactating females, weanlings and elderly llamas, all of which normally require a specialised regime. By regular checking of body condition, you can gauge if your llamas need extra food or if you need to restrict intake. Since llamas have evolved to live in harsh conditions with poor vegetation living in the U.K. tends to make them fat. Obese animals are more likely to suffer from heart and respiratory problems and in later life, arthritis. In females, obesity reduces both fertility and lactation and is more likely to cause birthing problems. Barley straw can be fed ad lib to llamas that are on a restricted diet and be aware that a thin llama may not show its lack of condition due to a full coat, so llamas that are on a diet should be body-scored regularly.

Shelter:  All llamas need access to a field shelter that has wide openings, preferably but not necessarily more than one, so that llamas that are lower in the pecking order can enter or leave freely without being stuck outside or afraid of being cornered inside. Camelids in general are tolerant of cold weather but they can be seen shivering if it is both windy and rainy for a day or two at a time. Shelter from sun is just as important as shelter from winter conditions. Llamas differ from one another in their ability to cope with hot weather; you may find some of your llamas sunbathing flat out in the hottest part of the day whilst others are lying in the shade with their back legs positioned so that there is a wind gap under their bellies. Panting is a sign of heat stress and may require urgent treatment. Some llamas enjoy being able to lie next to or stand in water, for example in a paddling pool.

Water:  Fresh water should be available and water containers should be cleaned at least weekly in the summer when green algae is likely to flourish.  For this reason you may want to fill buckets from troughs and restrict access to troughs that are difficult to clean.  Elderly, ill (and pampered!) animals seem to enjoy warm water (once the routine of it being brought daily has been established) and may well avoid drinking much if only cold water is available in the winter.  Warm water can be offered once a day (and the llamas may wait to drink until it arrives) but water that is at least free from ice should always be available.

Worming:  Some books recommend worming twice a year but vets now advocate worming only if the results of faecal testing require it.  Llamas don’t always pick up internal parasites because of their use of communal dung areas and that fact that unless the grazing area is restricted most llamas will not graze around a dung area.  However, regular removal of dung is still the most effective way of keeping llamas worm free.  In the summer it can take only three days for worm eggs to hatch out of dung.

Immunisaton:  It is often recommended that llamas be vaccinated against clostridial diseases although some vets recommend vaccination only after an injury.  Vaccination consists of two initial doses, usually a few weeks apart, and then a yearly booster.  Pregnant females need a booster two to six weeks before calving so that they pass on their antibodies to their new-born crias.  Vaccination against Bluetongue may be recommended, depending on the year and incidence.  Two injections three to four weeks apart are required initially then an annual booster, which should be given in March or April to maximise protection during the midge season, since it is midges that spread the disease.  Bovine TB is another threat to camelids.  There is no vaccination at present and no compulsory testing but you should bear in mind that there are some hot spots where this disease is endemic and you should therefore think carefully before taking animals out of these areas to areas free of it.  The DEFRA website can give you information on these areas.

Teeth and nails:  A lot of llamas never need to have their toe nails or teeth trimmed. Llamas that go onto hard-standing areas or are taken for walks on hard surfaces may wear their toe nails down naturally. Llamas with a good jaw alignment should have no problems with their teeth and it is rare for these animals to need dental attention, but males (including geldings) may need their fighting teeth assessed by a qualified vet once they have matured.

Stress:  Last but not least is stress. Llamas are born with gentle, inquisitive natures; they are not naturally aggressive or confrontational. They should be approached quietly and handled calmly but firmly. A stressed llama will have flared nostrils and may ‘huff and puff’ and in this situation it is best to talk reassuringly and, if possible, refrain from further handling unless necessary for health or safety reasons. Llamas should never be kept alone and if a companion animal should die, the remaining llama may well become very stressed or possibly lethargic and depressed.  If a new companion can’t be found quickly the lone animal should be rehomed, temporarily or permanently.  Llamas that are ill and need to be kept in a pen or shelter for a while should have a companion with them or be in close sight of other llamas.

Males and females should be kept in same sex groups. Males and females need to be kept separately from each other, asides from during supervised matings, as the frequent repeated matings can do a great deal of damage to the females (and sometimes males) which in some instances has been fatal. Even gelded males should not be kept with females, as they can still attempt to repeatedly mate and cause damage.

Llamas will play and chase each other and may enjoy being taken out for walks. Introducing new llamas to an established group can sometimes cause ructions but providing you allow them to get to know each other across a fence for a while they usually accept newcomers.  Bullying can occur when greedy llamas or older llamas mix with younger llamas or newcomers. Understanding normal llama behaviour will alert you to any problems in the herd so check your llamas at least once a day and enjoy them.