What to expect when your alpaca or llama is expecting
Welcoming a newborn cria into your herd is an exhilarating time, but can also be a little intimidating for novice alpaca and llama owners. Luckily, the mother and nature will do most of the work. But knowing what to expect and having the right supplies on hand will go a long way toward your peace of mind and a smooth delivery for your new cria.
The gestation period for llamas averages about 345-350 days, or almost a full year! Most dams will give birth to just one cria; twins are very rare. Newborn alpaca crias usually weigh between 15-20 pounds, while llama crias are larger, usually between 20-30 pounds at birth.
Preparing for a smooth delivery
As the due date approaches, make sure your alpaca or llama has an appropriate spot to give birth. In good weather, clean and fairly level grassy pasture will work well, as long as the area is free of items that might harm the cria, such as barbed wire or ponds. In less favorable weather, you will need a large, clean, well-ventilated stall with clean, dry bedding. Perhaps most importantly, you should build a relationship ahead of time with a good veterinarian or experienced llama or alpaca owner who can help with any complications that you don’t feel prepared to handle alone, and put their phone number in your mobile phone.
Also critical in the last weeks is the preparation of the birthing kit. A well-stocked kit should include the following items:
- Flashlight: To better see all angles of your laboring dam and new cria
- Several clean, old towels: To cover the bedding during birth, dry off the new cria and clean up birthing fluids.
- Sharp Scissors & Dental Floss: For cutting and tying off the umbilical cords, if needed.
- 7% Iodine Tincture and an Empty Prescription Bottle: For dipping the cria’s umbilical cord. A pill bottle is a good size & shape for holding the iodine during dipping.
- Betadine Surgical Scrub: To sanitize supplies or your hands.
- Sterile Lubrication: In case your veterinarian advises you to assist with the birth.
- Garbage Bags: For collecting afterbirth and soiled towels.
- Rectal Thermometer: To check the newborn cria’s temperature if he seems weak or lethargic.
- Bottle and Nipple: In case the cria is not able to nurse immediately after birth.
- Mutli-Species Colostrum Supplement: For the first, most critical feedings if the cria is unable to nurse.
- Multi-Species Milk Replacer: For continued nutrition if the cria is not able to nurse effectively. Look for a formula with a minimum of 24% protein.
- Electrolytes: To help reverse the effects of loss of body fluids due to diarrhea in newborn cria and help rehydrate the dam after laboring.
At about 330 days’ gestation, start checking on your pregnant llama or alpaca every few hours, or put a video baby monitor in the birthing stall for more constant monitoring, to look for signs that labor may be approaching. Signs may be subtle and depend on the dam, but some common things to look for are:
- Fuller Udder: The milk will begin coming in 2-3 weeks before delivery, and the teats will become waxy 3-4 days before the cria is born.
- Lengthening of the Vulva: The dam’s vulva will swell and become more prominent a few days before labor begins.
- Restlessness: When labor is approaching, it can be hard for the dam to get comfortable, and she may hum, shift or roll from side to side, or rise & lie down repeatedly. She may also stop eating and chewing her cud.
- Any Unusual Behavior: Any behavior that’s out of the ordinary for your llama may be a sign that you are about to witness the miracle of birth!
Your role in the birthing process
Most llamas or alpacas will deliver their cria with little to no assistance, and will usually give birth in the daylight, between sunrise and mid-day. The first stage of labor lasts about two hours. In this stage, the dam will seem quite restless, possibly visiting the dung pile without urinating or defecating. You may see her straining a bit as she has a contraction. If she shows signs of serious distress, such as biting or chewing at her stomach or rolling completely over, call your veterinarian for assistance. Second stage labor begins when the placenta or cria is first visible, and moves very quickly. Once the second stage begins, the cria will likely be born within 30 minutes.
In a normal birth position, the first part of the cria to appear will be the nose and front toes. If you do not see both hooves, if the cria is in breech position (rump first), or if birth does not progress within 45 minutes of the start of stage two labor, it would be a good time to consult the veterinarian or experienced llama owner you have identified for some professional advice. Likewise, if the dam does not pass her placenta within six hours of birth, there could be complications that your veterinarian can help you address.
After birth, dry the cria with towels to help maintain his body temperature, and dip the cria’s navel in iodine to prevent pathogens from entering the umbilical cord. Otherwise, for the first few hours, stand back and let the cria bond with his mother and nurse. He will likely be able to stand for the first time within an hour. If he seems weak or lethargic, check his temperature with the rectal thermometer. If his temperature is less than 100-102F, rub him with a towel or warm him with an electric hair dryer.
Feeding in the first hours and days
The first eighteen hours is critical for the long-term health of your new cria, and he will naturally start nursing within two hours to meet his nutritional needs. But if the dam dies, is in distress, or otherwise cannot effectively nurse her new cria, having bottles, nipples, and emergency nutrition on hand will be imperative.
Colostrum, the thick, yellowish first milk provided by the mother, jump starts the immune system by providing important antibodies that could not be passed to the foal in utero. The newborn cria’s body uniquely designed to absorb these antibodies into the bloodstream via the intestines, but only for the first 12-18 hours of life. Absorption of these critical antibodies on the first day helps set the stage for a long, healthy life.
The mother’s natural colostrum provides the best nutritional start for her newborn cria because it contains antibodies that are specific to her herd and surroundings. But if the cria does not nurse within 1-2 hours or you are worried that he is not nursing often enough or receiving adequate colostrum from the dam, a Colostrum Supplement will help provide this critical immune support. Feed a colostrum supplement by bottle every 3-4 hours for the first 24-48 hours of life, according to package directions, if the cria does not begin nursing properly.
Milk Replacer: After the first two days, if the cria is still not nursing effectively, switch to milk replacer to provide the balanced nutrition he will need for growth and development. Always choose a milk replacer that is formulated to meet the nutritional needs of cria, including at least 24% protein. Follow the packaging mixing and feeding instructions carefully to provide proper nutrition. To help avoid potential behavioral issues, it is best to minimize handling of the cria during feedings, and allow him to stay with the herd.
Electrolytes: The birth process exposes newborn cria to a host of pathogens or microorganisms that can cause digestive distress and cause diarrhea. Because diarrhea often leads to dehydration, it is important to supplement the mother’s milk or milk replacer with electrolytes to reverse the effects of body fluids. Be sure to feed electrolytes separately from milk replacer products, and always follow package directions for best results.
With proper preparation, monitoring and newborn nutrition, you will give your new cria the best chance for a long, healthy life and be able to enjoy his companionship for many years to come.