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Crias, Colostrum and Plasma

Alpaca Crias, Colostrum and Plasma

We have such a long wait to see the results of our breeding decisions, with average gestation (pregnancy) being 343 days. However, even with careful record-keeping of mating dates, gestation lengths can vary by a few weeks either side of this. Most births are trouble-free, and in the early days (about 25 years ago) the dams always seemed to wait until we weren’t looking, had gone shopping or off for the day to an alpaca show, before giving birth, and we would come home to a wonderful surprise baby alpaca, or ‘cria’. However, we need to be aware that birthing does not always go smoothly, and we must be ready for that. So it is wise to monitor your females every few hours when they are due to give birth.

Quite near to parturition (birthing time) the dam will probably visit the poo pile more than usual: she may roll, or she may go off on her own for a bit of privacy. The majority of alpaca births will be straightforward and trouble-free, with a large proportion of crias being born between 9am and noon. In normal presentation the head and two front feet are the first to appear. However, if you notice that the dam appears to be straining for a couple of hours with nothing else happening, that could mean a distocia, i.e. the cria is not lined up properly for birth – it may have a front foot or a leg turned back, or even the whole neck, causing the normal presentation to be either difficult or impossible. Breech presentation can also occur. If you feel that the birth is not progressing as it should, call your vet and explain what is happening, he may then reassure you, give instructions and/or make the decision to come out. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

Generally it’s best not to interfere – you should stay well away from the female, so that she can get on with the job while you just sit and watch. Sometimes, even with a normal birth, the cria may hang at the shoulder level for a while; this allows any fluid to drain from the cria’s lungs. However, if this goes on for more than 15 minutes, it may be necessary to gently turn the cria onto the diagonal to aid the birth, as the shoulders are the widest part of the cria. After the shoulders are born the rest of the cria soon follows. In normal situations, if you need to aid the birth process by pulling both front legs steadily, this should be in a downward direction, which follows the natural direction for birth.

Premature crias will probably require extra care. Indicators are: lower incisors not erupted, soft caps still in place on toe nails: loose tendons, indicated by bendy legs or dropped pasterns: low birth weight: or cria too weak to stand.  A premature delivery may also mean that the dam does not produce sufficient colostrum for the cria to get the antibodies it needs for disease protection in the first few weeks of life. If the cria cannot feed by itself, the best solution is to milk out the colostrum and either bottle feed that to the cria, or it can be tube fed (seek vet advice). However, it is worth being prepared just in case the female does not have enough colostrum. Ahead of your birthing season, I suggest sourcing a local disease-free farm, where you can obtain fresh cow or goat colostrum, and freeze in 100ml packs, in small zip-locking bags, ready for emergencies. The cria needs to consume 10% of its birth weight as colostrum over the first 24 hours. So a 7 kilo cria will need 0.7 litres, divided into several small ‘feeds’. After this the antibodies cannot be absorbed. Powdered colostrum, whether it is specifically for alpacas, calves or lambs, has its place as an high energy feed, but cannot be compared with fresh (or frozen) colostrum to supply the antibodies.

If the cria cannot stand to feed, if possible continue to milk the dam and feed this to the cria. Next best is goat’s milk, perhaps with a little goat yogurt mixed in, or powdered Calf or lamb replacer. 10% of current body weight is needed daily, divided between 5 or 6 feeds initially, and gradually reducing this number as the cria can take bigger feeds. But never be tempted to cuddle your cria, as this can cause imprinting, which can lead to the alpaca being aggressive to humans as the youngster matures. Just feed the cria and let it get straight back to the herd where it belongs. However, the bond between the dam and her cria will often mean that  the cria will start feeding from the dam as soon as it is able.

You may hear or read the term ‘failure of passive transfer’ in regard to crias. This is another way of describing lack of antibody transfer. An IGG blood test will determine if a plasma transfusion is required. At Bozedown we make sure we have plasma on hand before the crias start arriving. Blood donor males are vaccinated ahead of time to increase the antibodies in their blood. Our vet spins this in a centrifuge to produce sachets of plasma, which are then frozen ready for use. The plasma should be thawed naturally, or in warm water, but never in a microwave, as this destroys the antibodies; then administered only by transfusion, and never via a bottle or tube into the stomach, or even, as I have sometimes heard, directly through the stomach wall: none of these methods gives the same protection as a direct transfusion into the bloodstream.

Colostrum is essential for all alpaca crias, and if a cria either doesn’t get enough, or it is of poor quality, then they may fail to thrive.  An IGG test can be done at any time in the first few months and, if the result indicates failure of passive transfer, the cria can still benefit from a plasma transfusion. Crias can also fail to thrive if their dam does not produce enough milk, so do monitor cria weight gain daily for the first week, then weekly for a month, then monthly to make sure all is well.

It’s good to have a birthing kit ready to take into the field. This should contain, at the very least a navel spray, a towel, and a spring balance along with a sling for weighing the cria. You should also have to hand: a thermometer: a lamb tubing kit: a lamb feeding bottle and teats (a baby bottle and teat will do, but the hole in the teat will need to be enlarged): a cria coat: a hair dryer in case you have a hypothermic cria. A very comprehensive birthing kit is available from www.ukalpacavet.com.

This article appeared in the Summer edition of Sheep, Goats and Alpacas.

by Joy Whitehead