Hemorrhagic Disease in Llamas – the Silent Killer.
Those of us involved in the llama community and pack with llamas have an appreciation of what llamas are capable of and what they can do for us. At the very least there is an appreciation of the fact that were it not for them, we’d likely be enjoying the great outdoors much less than we do. If done right, the llamas get considerable enjoyment out of it too. This mutual enjoyment relies greatly on the relationships cultivated between human and camelid hiking companions. Some relationships are casual and while the llamas will do the work asked of them they may really have a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to accompanying us and if given the choice would be just as content to stay home. Such is not always the case.
My first pack llama was Peppercorn, an ILR registered intact male. Whenever I started our modified 17 passenger van he would run to the gate anxious to go someplace. If he saw me approach the pasture with his halter and lead he would run to meet me and all I had to do was hold it out and he would shove his nose in, excited to go somewhere or do something. All I then had to do was open the gate, open the van doors, and he would jump in ready to go. Being a speed freak, loving to run as fast as he could just for sport, even the ride itself was great fun – so much so he wouldn’t ever cush. It would be rather unwise for me to roll down a window if the barrier net was not up to keep him confined in the rear as he would stretch his neck out the window like a dog, enjoying the wind in his face. This could be a little distracting to other motorists. The driver’s window could be especially problematic as a 310 pound drooling lap llama is really not all that cuddly. Absent an open window, he’d have his face in the windshield taking it all in – hence, the barrier for safety reasons.
Peppercorn became our Boy Scout patrol mascot – yes, the llama patrol (with llama badges to prove it). He accompanied us on camping/hiking trips and would stick with the boys wherever we went, taking care to keep track of where everyone was so nobody would be left behind. In camp he would hang out, explore, keep watch, and we would all have a wonderful time as one big happy herd.
This was in my early and less informed days of llamas and we unknowingly had a severe and invisible endophyte problem on our newly acquired ranch. Receiving the heaviest exposure it took its toll on Peppercorn’s body and his health deteriorated – aging at an accelerated pace and having to be retired at an early age. Although I didn’t have him necropsied when he passed away a few years later, his gaunt appearance and rapid weight loss despite a rich diet had me suspecting he was succumbing to cancer. Sadly, there was nothing I could do to undo the damage once I figured out and remedied the endophyte problem. All I could do was make him as comfortable as possible.
We are a rescue ranch and are not actively breeding, but partly out of a desire to perpetuate what I could of Peppercorn I bred him to one of our special girls, our ranch poster-llama and driver Morning Sunshine, who clearly had a particular fondness for him and he for her. From that pairing we received a 35 pound chip off the old block, King Asher. Possessing Peppercorn’s disposition and growing into a tall, 380 pound strapping adolescent (pictured above), he assumed the lead pack duties. Sharing his sire’s love for adventure he was a joy to take on pack trips, also sticking with me wherever the trail took us. Well… with one exception. Once he was casually grazing in camp and it so happened he was behind a bush when nature called and I walked up the trail a short ways for a potty break, not thinking to make sure he saw where I was going (usually they don’t miss a thing). He didn’t notice me leave, but suddenly realized I was gone. Fearing I had left him behind, he took off back down the trail. I returned to discover him absent. Not having seen him go up the trail, I trotted down the forested trail and called him. Coming around a bend a short distance away I looked to my right to see him about fifty yards up a smooth steep rock hill, standing on the peak I assume to search all around for me. I’m sure he heard me calling him and approaching, but rather than hastily coming back down to rejoin me he instead just stood there looking at me like, why did you do that?! Yes, that was terribly inconsiderate of me. I had to call him down a couple of times before he accepted my apology and followed me back to camp.
Like our herd Matriarch, Dazy May, King Asher played a big part in my realization and appreciation of just how smart and emotional llamas can be, and is felt especially keenly once a close friendship and bond is cultivated. I’ve written of some of these flashes of insight in the past, posting the particularly humorous events on our website. It’s frequently noted how llamas can learn complex skills on their own, often simply through observation, such as opening gate latches, but the stories I have related reveal the more sophisticated abstract thinking and problem solving they can exhibit. This includes Dazy’s incredibly clever way to permanently solve the treat-robber dilemma. http://www.rattlesnakeridgeranch.com/dazy.htm
Sadly, the end of July Dazy May suddenly developed diarrhea with no parasites or coccidia indicated in fecal exam. I treated the symptom with kaolin+pectin thinking it was maybe just an upset tummy from something she ate. We left the following day for our annual rendezvous and she was found dead the next morning by a ranch hand, so no necropsy was performed as we had planned upon her demise due to her unique medical history, leaving us with an unresolved long running mystery. At age 23 we attributed the death to old age and mourned her loss, ignorant of what was to follow.
Life went on as it must, as hectic as ever…
King Asher displayed a knack for finding common ground with others he especially liked. “Llama or Dog” is an example, telling of his reaching out to a particular canine of ours. At the same time he was not one to hold back on his feelings if slighted. “Gone Ape” tells of his stunningly creative way of getting my attention when he felt I was neglecting him during a vehicle breakdown. http://www.rattlesnakeridgeranch.com/asher.htm
While King Asher and I made many enjoyable excursions together, receiving his Master Pack Llama certification from the Pack Llama Trial Association along the way, I continually felt that we were both being shortchanged. My jobs typically don’t allow me to get away more than a couple of times each summer, having to put in long hours in between those few breaks. Each year I vow to get out more the next, but so far it’s just not happened.
This became especially poignant and regretful one day in September, about a month after Dazy’s demise. A typical Sunday afternoon found most of the girls and King Asher parked in front of their respective fans, keeping cool and seeking refuge from the pesky houseflies that had become more numerous of late. I thought it a little unusual for Asher to be cushed in front of his fan as he doesn't typically do that even on a hot day, but figured it was the flies. I checked on him a little while later just to be sure and found he was still there. That's really not Asher. He doesn't ever stay in one spot for long, always staying active during the day. I went up to him and very gently encouraged him to get up but he wouldn't. He had no interest in food. Despite his normal appearance in the morning, something was now seriously wrong. I began taking vitals while Gayle contacted the local vet for an emergency farm call. I ran a quick fecal analysis and found nothing. Temperature was normal but respiration seemed a little strained. He didn't feel bloated.
The vet headed our way as soon as the call was made and arrived in about a half hour. Blood chemistry was essentially normal. Asher began mouth breathing at times. Choke was suspect so the throat was inspected and a tube inserted with nothing evident. Meanwhile, a vicious thunderstorm was passing directly overhead. It got dark and suddenly 80mph winds and torrential rain erupted. Lighting was striking nearby all around us from the clouds straight to the ground, with bright flashes and thunderous booms. One of our 60' tall willow trees came crashing to the ground, uprooting part of our perimeter fence and blocking the main road. Antibiotic, banamine and mild sedative was administered but with no clear cause for his behavior we all thought it best under the circumstances to transport him immediately to Washington State University-Pullman veterinary teaching hospital for more thorough evaluation via an emergency summons.
With the van opened Asher got up and willingly followed me there even as horrible as he felt, loading easily. Once in the van we raced for Pullman while they prepared for our arrival, following the thunderstorm as it moved northeast. Still not yet fully appreciating the seriousness of the situation but not wanting to take any chances with Asher, we arrived in record time despite the treacherous weather, about two and a half hours. He was cushed most of the time, but as we pulled into the WSU campus he got up and stretched his head towards the front of the van over the barrier with mouth open and gasping. It’s said that camelids have few muscles in the face and consequently aside from a slight worry wrinkle under the eye can’t express emotion through their face. I can testify that his was an expression of panic, as though to exclaim, “Help me!” whereupon he spun around and collapsed on his side, expelling a firm meringue-like foam from his lungs.
His death hit me like a punch to the gut. Months later it's still hard to walk past his empty paddock without that powerfully vibrant and energetic presence.
A few days after his death the necropsy results revealed the cause. The obvious asphyxiation that killed him was due to a silent and stealthy assassin. There is a class of arboviral diseases known as hemorrhagic. A human/primate version in the news in recent years is Ebola, found in Africa, though the disease is not new. Other more contagious hemorrhagic viruses affecting mostly ruminants have found their way out of Africa, such as African horse sickness virus (AHSV), equine encephalosis virus (EEV), epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV), and bluetongue virus (BTV). The latter is what killed Asher (BTV-11). They all have similar hideous symptoms, with varied severity and species susceptibility. These diseases are much more widespread and prevalent in the United States and elsewhere around the world than most people realize. Many “mysterious” illnesses or deaths are caused by them, with little warning and often going undiagnosed.
In our herd of twenty-four llamas, beginning with Dazy May, we lost four llamas in the span of about a month. Five more tested positive for the disease but survived, some spending time at WSU-Pullman. Spread by a Culicoides biting midge, the range of these insects is expanding. Other arboviral diseases are expanding as well, such as West Nile virus, and African species of mosquitoes that can carry yellow and dengue fever are spreading in California this year. These mosquitoes are aggressive and aren’t deterred by the daytime heat and sun.
WSU-Pullman dispatched a field disease investigative unit to gather data on our herd and others in Eastern Washington, identifying other ranches with recent BTV deaths. In 2015 a report was published documenting their study.
Measures need to be taken to protect your animals from the fate ours and many others have suffered from this often unrecognized cause of serious illness and death. To this end, I have written an article to share what I have learned about the disease and what can be done to minimize exposure risk. Please take the time to read it online at http://www.rattlesnakeridgeranch.com/documents/Bluetongue_disease.pdf or from http://www.rattlesnakeridgeranch.com click on Llama Care.
Scott and Gayle Noga
Distribution in 2007