Losing an animal is one of the hardest parts about this homesteading lifestyle. But what do you do when a mother passes and leaves you an orphaned alpaca? Here are some basic cria care tips – from changing a diaper to bottle feeding – for your orphaned alpaca.
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Alpacas on the Homestead
As Janet Garmen teaches us in her fine book, Keeping Sheep and Other Fiber Animals, alpacas aren’t the best choice for a small-lot, urban homesteader simply because they do enjoy some space. However, if you have the room (an acre at least), alpacas have so much to recommend them. If you are a fiber artist who would enjoy having a fiber animal on your own land, alpacas are relatively hardy and simple animals. They’re much more ladylike than a blundering goat (though I love my goats) and they have a great deal more in their brains than a sheep (not that sheep don’t have their charms).
To get a good overview of various fiber animals – sheep, goats, alpacas, and even rabbits – please check out Janet’s book:
And, sometimes, problems do arise.
Basic Care for an Orphaned Alpaca
Don’t let the sadness of losing your mother alpaca overwhelm you, if you’re reading this because you’ve just had the misfortune to lose an animal recently. Everything will be OK – you’ll figure this out! We’ve been where you are and we know you can do it! Let’s see if we can organize your thoughts a little and give you a decent start on your to-do list for rescuing your orphaned alpaca.
Resources for Alpacas
It’s best to do all your research before you have a problem, of course. We’re relatively new to alpacas and just hadn’t encountered a mother dying yet. It was all so new and so horrible (her uterus prolapsed). Without outside help, our cria would have been lost, as well. I’m so grateful for all the resources out there to help with orphaned cria care.
Most searches you’ll run on the Internet about emergent alpaca care will pull up baby sheep rescue information. Fortunately, the care of lambs and crias is very similar. So, pay attention to anything you read about keeping a lamb warm, well-fed and hydrated because it will apply to your orphaned alpaca.
Here’s a really useful article from Stowe Vermont Alpacas on Feeding an Orphaned Cria. (FYI, your ISP may tell you this site is insecure but it’s just a small farm that hasn’t paid for it’s https certificate yet. I’ve been on the site and there’s no malware or fishy stuff, I promise.)
However helpful the Internet might be, it’s important to have a quality book on hand that details the care of alpacas, if you’re going to raise them. Here’s the one we have and it is very comprehensive:
Also imperative, if you have one in your area, is a veterinarian that knows something about alpacas. I live in a very rural area and the pool of vets I have to choose from is small and none of them have experience with alpacas. Make some calls before the due date of your mother alpaca and see if you can find a vet who is able to help with cria care, if needed.
If not, see if you can find another animal mentor, especially one who has experience with birth and infant care. We don’t have a local vet, but we do have good friends who live close by who were willing to come down and help with a difficult birth. These friends run cattle and sheep and have helped birth countless baby animals. Where I lacked experience, my friends were able to immediately determine the position of the cria and what needed to happen to help her be born.
Without them, our cria would have died, as well as her mother.
Use Your Breeder
Another invaluable resource for us during this process was the breeder where we purchased our cria’s mother, Luna. Brian and Denise Cunningham of Crane Creek Alpacas provide excellent post-sale help and advice. We’ve contacted them a number of times with questions as we learn about alpacas. With this experience, we positively blew up their phone with questions!
Not everyone is as blessed as we were to find such helpful breeders, but if you can establish a good relationship with yours, do!
Quick Note – Deal with Your Loss
You may need to take a few minutes to cry your eyes out over the loss of your mother alpaca. I know I did. I kept asking myself if there was something I missed; something more I could have done. Brian assured us that we did the best we could and that, given the severity of the prolapsed uterus, even a vet would have been hard pressed to save her. Especially with how cold it was and how long she’d labored. He also cautioned us not to be too broken-hearted or surprised if we lost the cria, too, because the odds really weren’t in her favor.
I will readily admit that, though we enjoyed success with our orphaned alpaca, it could have just as easily gone the other way. We spent a lot of time praying and pondering how best to help her. I highly recommend prayer in this process, or meditation, if you prefer. Each baby is a miracle and the survival of our little cria was no less miraculous to us.
Go After the One
In fact, as I was once again thanking our ranch-friends who braved icy roads and the midnight hour to come help us save our cria, the husband, Ronnie, said something that was meaningful to me. I sort of apologetically reported on all the special treatment the cria was getting from swaddling to cuddles to playing. I verbally recognized that not all his struggling lambs got the same luck simply because they deal with the exponentially larger numbers that come with a working ranch. Our little homestead only had the one baby to save.
Ronnie thought about that in his quiet way and said with his characteristic farm wisdom, “You’re doing just as you should. Aren’t we counseled to always go after the one?” His reference to the Judeo-Christian ethic of selfless service in the sacrifice of others stuck with me over the next few weeks. It kept me patient as the cria woke me up to eat during the night and chewed my furniture.
There’s always a ray of brightness and hope! Even though the loss of our orphaned alpaca’s mother was a blow – what a gift she left us! So, don’t be a tough guy. If you need to cry, do it. You’ll be better able to suck it up and get that cria under your good and watchful care if you just deal with your loss.
Is Your Orphaned Alpaca Premature?
Here are some things to look for to figure out if your orphaned alpaca is premature:
- No milk teeth have cut through her gums.
- Weakness or inability to stand.
- Little to no sucking reflex.
- Silky, instead of crimpy/fluffy, coat.
- Floppy ears that won’t stand up on their own.
- Difficult or labored breathing.
- The natural coating on her hooves doesn’t come off within 24 hours.
Using this basic list, most of which came from Brian of Crane Creek Alpacas and The Complete Alpaca Book, we determined that our orphaned alpaca was a little premature. She had no erupted teeth, the coating on her hooves took over a week to come off, she couldn’t hold her head up for very long and she was really weak overall. Knowing this about her helped us make a better plan for her care.
Look for Possible Neonatal Problems
For the first few days, especially the first 24 hours, be sure to watch for possible problems in your orphaned alpaca. If she is premature or simply weak, be sure to encourage her to hold her head up frequently. Also require that she get up every now and then if she seems only inclined to lay around. Newborns sleep most of the time, but when she’s awake, challenge her to use her muscles a bit. She’ll thank you later when she starts running around!
Feeding Your Orphaned Alpaca
Mother’s milk is always the best thing for any animal and nothing can fully take its place. However, you have to feed your cria something, so here are a few suggestions, most of which come from The Complete Alpaca Book:
- For at least the first 24 hours, look for a colostrum replacement – not milk, colostrum.
- We used a lamb bottle and a goat kid nipple with the hole widened just a bit, but a human baby bottle will work, too. We tried lamb nipples that are smaller, but they were too small and our orphaned alpaca just didn’t like it. It was amazing to me through this process to realize that a baby is a baby and caring for our cria was a lot like figuring out how to care for each human newborn we’ve had.
- The cria should be fed colostrum often and in small amounts to reach a total of 10% of its body weight in an 18- to 24-hour period.
- The bottle should be held up to encourage the cria to raise it’s head – you don’t want food going into any chamber it shouldn’t. Hold her head if you need to, at first. Our baby, Nickel, was so weak in the beginning that we had to help her hold her head up for the duration of the bottle. After a few days, she was able to do it on her own.
- Watch to see that your cria’s tail goes up while she feeds, or any time she’s happy. This is a good sign!
Moving on to Milk
- After the need for colostrum has passed, move to a milk replacement. I would have used a goat kid milk replacement if we had any local to us, but I had to use lamb milk replacement instead. We water it down just a bit since it’s a little rich for our orphaned alpaca.
- I also add a little probiotic-rich whey from our homemade yogurt and a tiny amount of sunflower/coconut oil mix. We didn’t start out using the oil, but Nickel became constipated a few days after birth and adding a small amount of the oil helped her overcome it. A simple enema might have been effective, too.
- Make any changes to your cria’s milk in a measured, gradual way. Too much change too quickly can cause diarrhea or other stomach upset.
- Pay attention to whether or not the cria is thriving. Like in a human baby, note whether your cria is gaining weight consistently – even if you don’t think it’s enough, is she steadily gaining? Are her eyes bright and alert? Is she vocal every now and then, or a lot? Does her tail go up when she eats or seems happy? Is she gaining strength? If she is, she’s thriving!
If you have access to a vet or mentor and have any questions about your orphaned alpaca thriving, or any problems passing urine or feces, please contact them immediately. Dehydration, lack of appetite, low body temperature, constipation and diarrhea can lead to serious problems in your newborn cria. A vet may need to provide tubular feeding or some other intervention to help your cria survive.
Diapering Your Orphaned Alpaca
Being with the other alpacas in the herd is the ultimate best thing for your cria once she’s eating and thriving. However, you may need to bring your orphaned alpaca inside for awhile to see to her care properly. Nickel was a part of our indoor family for nearly a month! Learning to care for her southerly regions was an important part of keeping her healthy.
Here’s a quick video to show you how to diaper a cria:
To Diaper a Baby Alpaca:
Incidentally, this process can be applied to a lamb, kid or any other cria-sized orphaned animal. Never having had an orphaned alpaca in my parlor, I had no idea what to do with what would come out of her south end. Then it occurred to me – Duh, she’s a baby! You’ll put her in a diaper while she’s in the house! They sell diapers for dogs that would probably be the right size, but they’re expensive and I needed something easy and fast.
Prepare the Alpaca and the Diaper:
- Place the cria between your knees gently but firmly with her head behind you.
- Wipe her anal area with a damp rag to remove any dried feces. Normally, a mother alpaca would do this for her cria, but with an orphaned alpaca, this is a function you’ll have to perform. Keeping a cria’s anus free of dried feces will help prevent blockage that will have an effect similar to constipation. It can be a deadly problem.
- We tried a 2T pull-up at first, thinking they’d fit and be easier to use. After all, they’re easier on my human children! However, they were a little too big for Nickel. We found that a size 6 diaper worked the best.
- To find the right place to cut a slit for the tail, you’ll need to do some experimenting to get a good fit on your cria. Cut a straight line horizontally to open a space for the cria’s tail to come through. We tried cutting a square at first, but poop was constantly coming through. A slit was enough space for her fuzzy tail to pass through comfortably.
Getting the Diaper On:
- Pass the cria’s tail through the slit and wrap the diaper down around her anus, flattening it against her belly.
- Unfasten the Velcro and slightly raise one hip to secure the Velcro to the diaper. Be sure you don’t snag any fleece while you do this!
- Do the same on the other side.
- Release your cria with a soft pat so she knows you’re still friends. She will, after all, be highly offended at the liberties you just took with her bum.
Other Orphaned Alpaca House Keeping Items
- If you’re concerned that your cria is experiencing some constipation or abdominal discomfort, try some massage. Gently rub her anus or abdomen in firm but gentle circles.
- Be sure to check your cria’s ears, nose, hooves, anus and eyes regularly. Also, clean her face and anal area with a warm rag now and then.
- Pull down eyelids and check for anemia – the inner eye and eyelids will be white, if this is an issue.
- Be sure that her breathing is regular, especially when she feeds.
- If your orphaned alpaca is in your home, be sure to keep an eye on her around wires, cords, books and anything else she can reach to nibble. Babies teeth and, true to form for any baby, if something fits in her mouth, your cria will consider it edible. Nickel was teething on the fabric stash, the seed starting shelf, the dining room table and the Christmas lights that were still up.
- If you must travel with your cria, be sure that she is secure in the vehicle so she doesn’t harm herself. With our crazy schedule and Nickel’s feeding schedule, we ended up taking her with us to our dance studio several times. It wasn’t ideal for any of us, but she needed to eat so often, we didn’t have a choice. She seemed to think the car was pretty fun, though.
- Adjust your schedule as much as you can to fit your infant cria’s needs. This is a big deal; don’t feel guilty if you get a little stressed out about it!
Yucky Ear Assistance for Our Cria
We discovered that our cria’s ears became clogged by waxy discharge. I didn’t notice it for the first week and a half while I was so focused on keeping her alive while we managed our busy schedule around her care. In order to remove the hardened discharge, I rubbed olive oil around the outside and gently lifted until it slid free. The plugs were quite large and I would imagine impeded her hearing quite a bit.
She’s had no further issues with her ears since we removed the wax plugs.
Integrating the Orphaned Alpaca Back Into the Herd
As soon as possible, introduce your orphaned alpaca to the rest of your herd. We’re blessed in that our alpaca herd is very small – we only have one other alpaca besides Nickel. Her name is Storm and she’s about two years old, docile and generally friendly, though shy. We lost her friend, our first alpaca, Zoe, to a meningeal parasite the white tail deer in our area carry. We were all so sadden by that loss last year – maybe that’s why losing Luna was so extra hard. Storm was SO upset at losing Luna and was vocal in her loneliness.
Once we started bringing Nickel out to meet Storm, she calmed right down. We’ve been blessed that their bonding was quick and friendly.
Storm hasn’t been matronly; more like an older sister to Nickel. Sometimes, an adult female’s hormones can be stimulated by the presence of a cria that she will come into milk and be able to nurse the orphaned alpaca.
That didn’t happen for us, but Nickel and Storm have become fast friends. Storm has taught Nickel how to be an alpaca – eat like an alpaca, poop like an alpaca, run like an alpaca. These were all things we couldn’t teach Nickel and we’re so blessed that Storm has filled that need for our little orphaned alpaca. I pray it will go as well for you.
Some Tips for Integrating a Cria Back Into the Herd:
You’ll need to asses your herd and your cria on your own, but here are some general suggestions to get you started.
- Make sure your cria is strong enough to stand on her own before you take her out to the barn. She should be able to keep her head up on her own. She should also be nourished and hydrated. Make sure she’s between naps, too, so she won’t be too tired. Crias sleep as often as any newborn; which is to say, a lot.
- Provide a clean stall with new straw that’s free of dung, if you can. You don’t want manure or wet hay compromising the cria’s immune system at this point. So much of the antibodies that strengthen a cria’s immune system come from its mother. With an orphaned alpaca, you have to be extra careful.
- Prevent other animals, besides your alpaca (or two), from bothering the cria and its new alpaca friend.
- Supervise the visit, but hold back from interfering unless you sense your cria is in danger. The adult alpaca will probably sniff the cria all over – she may even nudge or push her. The adult may also establish their dominance by standing directly over the cria, covering her completely. If the cria isn’t harmed, this is all very normal and necessary.
As the Cria Ages:
- When you feel comfortable, allow your alpaca to “babysit” your cria for a few hours at a time. This will really free up your schedule, by the way!
- Once your cria is ready, transfer her out to the barn full-time. Pay special attention to inclement weather and check on her frequently.
- Set a timer each day between feedings so that you don’t forget to feed her! Once she was no longer running around my house, it was much harder to remember to feed Nickel on time. The oven timer, plus alarms on my phone, were invaluable.
- Be especially careful about how long you allow a male cria to be in your home or hand-fed by you. Males can start out friendly but get combative and even dangerous as they age. If you need to foster a male cria, arrange for a stand or some other apparatus to hold the bottle for feedings. This will prevent your male cria from associating a human with his food and hopefully prevent future aggressive behavior.
Children – a Must-Have for Orphaned Alpaca Care
I am speaking truthfully when I say that we probably would have lost our orphaned alpaca if it weren’t for my children. We’re a homeschool family and so we had the opportunity to adjust our schedule to fit hers. My children were Nickel’s primary caretakers and each child seemed to develop a specialty.
What the Children Did
My oldest teen became her mother and was usually the one to feed and snuggle Nickel on a regular basis. This daughter is usually to be found at the “bedside” of any ailing animal on our homestead. We spent the night in the barn together with Zoe the night she passed. This daughter just loves animals and has a gift for their care.
My teenage son was our main transport dude back and forth between the barn once Nickel was able to go outside. He feeds and waters the animals daily as part of his chores so he knows our adult alpaca, Storm, really well. She trusts him and so when we introduced the cria to her, my son was in charge of that.
Even the Littles Helped!
My youngest three girls naturally took turns loving on and even playing with Nickel. They learned to feed her and help change her diaper. My youngest was fond of laying with our cria while she napped. Even in the house it was bitterly cold the month of Nickel’s birth and she seemed to be chilly often. My five year old was always sure to tuck blankets around Nickel while she slept.
With my schedule and the demands on my time from the human children in my care, there’s no way I could have taken such quality care of our orphaned alpaca. My children saved her life.
Never underestimate the power and importance of children on the homestead, especially when it comes to animal care. Our book, The Do It Yourself Homestead, has entire section detailing the functions that children of all ages can perform on your homestead. We even have suggestions for the grandpas and grandmas. If you’d like a free sample from that section, just email me at Tessa@homesteadlady.com and I’ll get you set up.
Just a reminder, I’m not a veterinarian or medical professional. Use your common sense when it comes to reading and taking the above advice and always seek medical attention for your animals when possible. If I’d had the option to work with a vet, believe me, I would have!
Cover graphic gratefully attributed to this Pexels user.