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Frequently Asked Questions about Llamas and Alpacas

Q: Where do llamas & alpacas come from?
A: Llamas and alpacas come from Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, in the high plains areas called the " Altiplano" (elevation: 8,000'-15,000' ). Llamas were first brought to the United States by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920's for his personal zoo. Alpacas were imported much more recently, beginning in the '80s. Llamas and alpacas were domesticated from their wild counterparts, the Guanaco and Vicuna 6,000-7,000 years ago by the Quechua Indians and their fiber and structure were improved by the Incas.

Q: What kind of personality do llamas have?
A: Llamas by nature are very intelligent, gentle animals. They are relatively inexpensive to maintain, relatively disease-free, and are quick to learn, cooperative, and patient in training. Their quickness to learn can make them, at times, mischievous.

Q: Do they spit?
A: Yes, they do spit, but usually at each other; this being over disputes about food primarily. A bred female llama will spit at advances from a male llama. An over-handled llama, improperly socialized without other llamas present, will think humans are llamas and will spit as a normal course of action against the other "llama". A mistreated or mishandled llama may also spit at humans.  It's important to recognize llama body language. They'll give you every warning they can.  Llamas don't like to spit.  It's as distasteful to themselves as it is to others. Spitting is an action of last resort, typically preceded by ears down, grunts, and nose in the air.

Q: What do you do with a llama?
A: There are six main uses for a llama, many compatible in the same animal.

*A pet and companion
*A sure-footed, alert pack animal
*A source of excellent fiber (similar to alpaca)
*An animal trained to pull a cart
*A show competitor: 4-H Projects, parades
*A competent guard animal, very effective against small predators

Q: What's the difference between alpacas and llamas?
A: Size and fiber quality. Llamas were primarily bred to be a beast of burden, and alpacas were bred primarily as fiber producers. An average alpaca stands 34"-36" at the withers, where llamas stand 42"-48" at the withers. An adult alpaca will generally produce 5-8 lbs of high quality exotic uniformly crimped fiber in a single fiber fleece, each year.

Q: Do llamas produce fiber of high quality? How much do they produce?
A: Llamas are excellent fiber producers too. They usually have a dual fiber fleece, however, which includes 80-100% fine crimpy fluff and 20-0% straight coarse guard hair. The fiber is hollow, making it excellent for creating warm clothing. It is also oil free and has no inherent odor. The qualities make this fiber a spinner's dream, and it may be felted as well. The amount of fiber varies from animal to animal, but an average is about 2-5 lbs per year. Most llamas would need shearing every other year, some every year, and some every third year.  The guard hair sheds debris, so an animal with more guard hair tends to be lower maintenance from a grooming standpoint, which is a decided advantage in a packer.

Q: Can you ride them?
A: It is not generally recommended to ride llamas, except for small children. An adult male will reach a weight of between 300 and 450 lbs. and stand 5 to 6 feet tall. They are expected to carry approximately 1/4 of their body weight, so a rider or load of between 75-115 lbs. may be carried. This weight may be increased to a maximum of 1/3 of their body weight as they reach top physical conditioning.

Q: Can you take them back-packing?
A: Llamas are great friends to have when you want to head to the high country for a little camping and back-country trekking. Because of their soft foot (two toes, with toenails) they leave no scars on the trail. Because they are modified ruminants, their fecal matter comes as very well digested, almost odorless pellets. They can usually browse for their food as they go along the trail. All in all, they fit into the mountain trail or back-country environment very well.

Q: How much space do they need?
A: Llamas can be maintained in a backyard, however, it is best that they have a good sized area. Llamas are very athletic and like to run and play. This could be an acre or two. Llamas are efficient digesters and usually one horse will graze about as much a 5-7 llamas. They can easily jump most fences, but train to fences as youngsters and usually don't jump. A minimum 4' high stock fence is recommended for protection against feral dogs.

Q: What do llamas eat?
A: Llamas are browsers, eating primarily grasses.  Their digestive system exceeds even goats in efficiency.  Consequently, they can get quite fat and unhealthy on rich diets, such as alfalfa or other legumes.  Never let llamas eat turf (lawn) grasses, particularly any containing fescues or rye, as they almost certainly contain endophytes, which are toxic to ruminant animals.

Q: Do they bite or kick?
A: They generally do not bite or kick like a horse. A human isn't in danger of being kicked or bitten by a properly socialized and desensitized animal. They will kick at a fly or something around their back feet, but because the foot is soft it's not as dangerous as a horse's kick.  That's not to say they don't pack a wallop if they want to, but kicks are typically at the air as a warning to back away, rather than directed at you with intention of making contact.  This will only be seen in a llama that hasn't yet learned to trust you.

Q: Is their manure good fertilizer?
A: Their manure is an excellent soil enhancer and may be applied to the garden immediately. Because they are not nomadic (stay in an outlined territory), and mark their territory with their dung piles, they usually wait to get to a dung pile to defecate or urinate.  The "llama beans" are virtually odorless, so can even be used indoors for houseplants.

Q: Do they get along alright alone?
A: Llamas and alpacas are herding animals and very social, and are most happy when in the company of other animals, preferring other llamas or alpacas.  Being alone is very stressful.

Q: Do you have to castrate the males if they won't be used for breeding?
A: Not every male must be castrated. This is an individual choice by temperament and circumstance, and many get along fine without castration. There is some disagreement among breeders and owners regarding this subject.

Q: Can llamas be used as guards for smaller livestock?
A: Llamas have been used very successfully as guard animals for sheep, goats, and miniature horses. They are very intelligent and curious, and have the ability to recognize family pets, neighbors' pets, and the difference between them and coyotes. Their curious nature and athletic ability bring them into close proximity to the coyote, causing the coyote to turn tail. Gelded males are preferred as guard animals, typically deployed in pairs. They work best without other llamas, in this case, adopting the herd of sheep (goats, miniature horses, cattle) as their "own" herd.

Q: How long do llamas and alpacas live?
A: Llamas have a life expectancy of approximately 20-25 years.

Q: When do they reach breeding maturity?
A: Breeding capability is reached by 16-24 months. Some breeders have started females at 12 months (some females will be capable at 9 months), with most reputable breeders waiting until 36 months to allow full development of the mother's growth. Males usually don't reach sexual potency until 24 months, with the rare one becoming potent as early as 12 months.

Q: What is the gestation period?
A: The gestation period is 11-1/2 months (350 days average).  The tendency is to go a bit longer for spring births, and shorter for autumn births.  Llamas can control the time of birth +- a week or two.  98% of llamas are born during daylight hours, typically midmorning.

Q: When do females stop breeding?
A: Females will breed throughout their life.

Q: How much do the babies weigh when born?
A: Average llama cria (baby) weight is 25 lbs, alpaca crias average 18 lbs.; almost always a single birth, twins are very rare and are in fact an extremely high risk situation for mother and babies -- often fatal without intervention.

Q: What is Berserk Male Syndrome? - or - Can llamas or alpacas become over-bonded or over-handled, and how can this be avoided? What are the results of this type of over-handling/mistreatment?

A: This syndrome is usually caused by bottle feeding a cria and/or fondling, playing llama games (bumping, nudging, running with, & cuddling) while a youngster.

The young llama then bonds so completely with humans that s/he thinks that humans are llamas too. As s/he grows, s/he begins to play rougher and rougher, until he becomes unmanageable and (not she here) quite dangerous. Females will develop the same bond, but their activities don't include chest-ramming and "serious" conflict, but very well may include frequent spitting at humans and a general difficulty in handling.  It is important to resist the temptation to interact with baby llamas, as cute as they are.  Minimize contact for the first two or three months.

**CAUTION: This phenomena can become VERY serious and many times ends with the (male) llama being euthanized. Once they reach adulthood, turning back is very difficult and requires intensive training. **If you have a cria that requires bottle feeding, immediately consult an experienced llama handler for explicit instructions how to avoid BMS. -or- If you have a young animal that is "pushy" affectionate, beware. This is usually the beginning of difficult behavior and will more than likely develop into "nasty" behavior. Steps should be taken immediately to redirect any pushy behavior.  If a llama bumps into you, this can best be alleviated by immediately responding with a good hard thump with the upper thigh.  This blunt thump will not hurt the llama.  He's telling you with his bump that he is willing to be above you in the "pecking order".  Failing to respond, or backing away, tells him you are ok with that.  Unfortunately this is our natural response, which contributes to BMS.

Originally compiled by Michael Shealy.

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Last modified: 15 May 2012