Vet Stuff

Luckily, we haven't had too many problems with our geriatric rescued llamas and alpacas. Here are some stories about puzzling symptoms that may help you some day. They are: mystery cud balls; a down, dizzy and vomiting llama; extreme swelling; and a wounded llama dragging one foot.

Cud Balls

In 2011 we started noticing odd balls of chewed-up grass on the barn floor. At first there were only a few every now and then. A few weeks later, we began finding up to a dozen each morning. Another round of e-mails and a question posted to Yahoo Groups' alpaca site yielded a consensus: somebody had uneven tooth wear.

Zobel, our almost 19-year-old alpaca gelding, was a prime suspect. He had always had an odd way of chewing grass or cud with his mouth wide open and jaw working in wide circles, since we rescued him in 2006. First, we isolated him from the other camelids in the barn, to see if he was the one spitting out the cud balls. Sure enough, it was him: the spit-out cud was in his area only.

The next step was to feel his molars. Nothing was obvious and he had no apparent pain from me pressing on his cheeks. Then we tried to look at the inside of his mouth. Not easy! Zobel is a calm old boy, easy to work with, but examining his molars resulted in quite a wrestling match and only a brief glimpse. But that was enough. There was a narrow spike of enamel sticking up 1/4" or more from a lower pre-molar! How he avoided shredding his cheek and tongue, we'll never know. Nor will we know which came first: his funny way of chewing or the spike on his tooth!

Off we went to the vet to have Zobel's teeth "floated" (ground down to be more even). We asked the vet to use drugs so Zobel wouldn't resist as much or feel pain. The pre-molar in front of the spiked one was loose, so the vet pulled it easily. The spike was clipped off and the molars ground down a bit with a rather evil-looking rotary grinding tool, meant for horses I think, but rather large for an alpaca's mouth. Now we'll have to keep an eye on the tooth above the one that was pulled, as it will have nothing to wear against and could grow too long.

Zobel didn't eat anything but pellets the rest of that day, and he looked unhappy and ate very little grass the next day, as though his teeth hurt. But by the third day he seemed fine, and looked surprised and happy that his teeth didn't bother him any more! Since then he's had a much happier, calmer, almost grateful look in his eyes when I greet him. What a sweet guy he is!

Rhododendron Poisoning

Rhododendrons and azaleas are always included in lists of plants that are poisonous to livestock. Our complaint about these lists is that they never seem to say HOW poisonous! Does it only make the animal sick for a time? Or is it lethal from the animal eating ONE leaf, 10 leaves, 100, or more? Is there an antidote or treatment? Does the toxin build up over time? So many important details are either left out or unknown!

I can tell you from personal experience that 20 rhododendron leaves (or less) are NOT fatal to a 200+ pound camelid. One of ours ate about that many one morning, and was quite sick for 2 days, but made a full recovery. He did NOT, however, learn from his experience to avoid eating rhododendron leaves! So we had to transplant and/or fence off all our rhodies so the camelids couldn't get at them.

The first symptoms appeared in an hour or two. He started shaking his head and swinging his neck as though he was dizzy. An hour later, he began vomiting small amounts of olive-green, partially digested rhododendron leaves. After another hour or two, he was kushed. At dusk I managed to get him to walk to the barn, where he kushed and was so out-of-it that he let me pet and try to comfort him (over-familiarity he would normally run away from). Before dark he was laid flat out and rolling around with serious stomach distress. I feared he would be dead by morning.

I had searched the Web for information about treatment or an antidote, but could find nothing during the day. Much later, a fellow camelid owner told me I should have intubated him and administered Pepto-Bismol. But I had never tubed an animal before, and would have been afraid of getting the tube in his lungs, even if I'd known about that treatment when it was needed.

As it turned out, he was much improved the next morning, and completely recovered the second day after his rhododendron-leaf snack.

We have noticed that after spitting at each other, the llamas will chew anything, including poisonous leaves, to rid their mouths of the taste of their own spit! And our goats are not even that restrictive: they will go after rhododendron leaves or foxglove (Digitalis sp.) any time they can get at them.

It's very important to learn to identify the poisonous plants on your property and either pull them out and make sure they don't spread seeds, or fence them off, as we did with our rhodies. Many ornamental plants used in landscaping are purposely poisonous, to prevent insect or other pests (even deer) from destroying their beauty. So beware! You can find lists of poisonous plants on the Internet, in books, or by contacting your local Cooperative Extension or County Soil and Water office.


Our "classic" llama, Lily, had had grass awns (seed husks) in her eyes that caused minor swelling on several occasions. These came from hay with lots of seed-heads in it. I had always haltered her and had been able to clean up her goo-encrusted eyes with human eye-wash solution. When we stopped using that type of hay, the problem pretty much disappeared.

But one morning Lily surprised me as I prepared to let her out of the barn. Her whole face was very swollen, from the eyes forward! Naturally, it was a weekend day so we couldn't call the vet. We contacted neighbors who own cattle and asked for their advice. Nobody knew what could have caused this, so we e-mailed llama people and posted a question on an alpaca site in Yahoo Groups. While waiting for an answer, we gave Lily a shot of penicillin, just in case. Then we let her out into the pasture. During the day, the facial swelling subsided, so we thought she was OK.

But the next morning, Lily was even worse! The swelling was so extreme, her face looked like a balloon! Her eyes were swollen almost shut. I was afraid the swelling would rupture her skin. Her lips were especially bad, and looked like they were inflated to 60 PSI! Nobody nearby had any sort of antihistimine, such as epinephrine, that we could try on Lily. We felt helpless. Since being out in the pasture had helped the day before, we released her again. The swelling did recede, but not completely until two days later, and it left her facial skin with sags and bags from being so stretched. Poor Lily!

Meanwhile, we checked our e-mail. Most people thought it was a tooth abcess or some similar problem. If the swelling had come on more gradually or was more localized, I might have agreed. But one person who responded had what I thought was the right answer: an allergic reaction to an insect sting on or inside the mouth.

This rang a bell: I had recently put a whole bale of straw on the barn floor, and cut the strings, intending to use a flake or two each day as bedding. Lily had buried her nose in the straw, looking for the "good stuff" at the bottom, as camelids often do. I had also heard unusual buzzing while cleaning the barn the last few days. Suddenly this all added up: the bale of hay must have had bees, wasps, or hornets trapped inside (or perhaps building a nest), which stung Lily when she rooted inside the bale.

I tore apart the bale, and sure enough, found a few stray hornets. Since then we have NEVER put a whole bale of hay or straw where the animals can get at it, only flakes, and Lily has not had that problem again. Eventually, her facial skin tightened up and now looks normal. But it took a long time.

In early 2011, we stored a few bales of straw in a newly-added loft above where the lamas sleep at night. This was to be used as bedding, and to cover wet spots. When spring came but the rains didn't stop, I began to hear buzzing constantly in the barn, and often saw one or two bumblebees inside. Turns out there were dozens of them, and they had made a nest between two bales in the loft! They were hard to get rid of, because more kept returning no matter how many I squashed or poisoned. There were also mice and rats that had been living in the loose straw. Every solution creates a new problem!

Wound, Dragging Foot

Franny (ne Tillman's Flaunt It) panicked and bolted at the beginning of a terrible wind storm that lasted 2 days, on Dec. 2-3, 2007. Winds were clocked at 125 MPH about 100 miles north of us in Tillamook, Oregon (no weather stations any closer). That's a Category 2 hurricane in the Southeast, but here in the Northwest, it gets no such special name.

I've never seen a llama run so fast as Franny did, before I lost sight of her in the trees. An hour or so later, after our electricity went out and I had dealt with that, I noticed that Franny was lying down in a 3-sided shed about 300 feet away from our house. During a lull in the storm, when the other camelids went out to graze, Franny stayed in the barn. Eventually, her odd behavior prompted me to brave the wind, rain, and falling branches to see what was wrong with her.

I was shocked that she had a deep gash in her shoulder, with blood trickling down her front leg. "Franny, what did you DO to yourself?" I wailed at her. She moaned and looked sheepish. I went back to the house and got some spray-on antiseptic called "Fur-All," and applied that to the wound. There was really no way to bandage it, and it wasn't bleeding much, so I decided to leave it open. I also made several more trips back and forth in the storm, with darkness fast approaching, to bring her food and water. This was a Sunday.

We had recently started locking up all our animals in barns at night, due to cougar predation. Franny was using only 3 legs, dragging the ankle of the wounded leg and not putting any weight on it at all. I didn't think she could make it the 300 feet to the enclosed barn next to our house, and with serious misgivings about her helplessness, left her where she was for the night. At least she'd be dry and mostly protected from the wind. I hoped no cougars would venture out on a night like this to attack her!

Joe had left for a job in California just one day before, so I was alone to deal with this emergency. Being December, it got dark before 5 PM, and I had to tend the fireplace and light candles and, oh yes, herd all the peacocks into the garage to protect them from the storm, and feed all the animals before dark, as well as myself, by fireplace and candle light.

I called Toni Johnson, a local llama rescue person, to ask her advice. At least the phone still worked! She encouraged me and thought Franny would be fine.

The storm continued all day Monday, knocking down large "widow-maker" branches from the fir trees. I expected whole trees to be uprooted or blown over at any time, perhaps breaching the fences and allowing the animals to escape. The power was still out. At least it was relatively warm at 50 degrees F.

Franny didn't look any better, and only stood up to relieve herself. She was still not moving or putting weight on her wounded leg at all, which seemed to sag from the shoulder on down, with the foot dragging at an unusual backward angle, and she hopped clumsily on 3 legs. When she cushed again, her wounded leg was held at a somewhat odd angle from the shoulder, and she seemed to be stoic, but in pain. I put more Fur-All antiseptic on the wound, which looked clean, but was still bleeding slightly. The other camelids, who I put in the same pasture to keep Franny company, helped themselves to her food, so I moved them to another pasture. Franny could still see them, and seemed to enjoy having a whole flake of alfalfa all to herself!

I was beginning to have a bad feeling about her prognosis, however, and started to wonder if something more serious was going on. I called our vet and he agreed to come out on Wednesday.

The storm finally abated late Monday night, and the power came back on after a 36-hour outage. A friend came over and took pictures of Franny with her digital camera. Franny was still not moving her wounded leg at all, and I had a very bad feeling about it by this time. Another friend came by to see if I needed help, and I was very thankful he did. He helped me cover the floor of the shed with straw to make Franny more comfortable. I searched the pasture for clues as to what happened to cause her injury, but could find nothing.

Finally, the vet arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and in less than 5 minutes knew what was wrong. Franny's upper front leg was broken clean through, well above the knee. The shoulder wound was just incidental. Toni Johnson had told me about a llama owner who had spent $10,000 trying to heal a broken leg, and the animal eventually had to be put down, anyway. Toni said llamas just aren't any good at walking on 3 legs, and I knew she would be at every predator's mercy, every minute.

I didn't want to put Franny through that trauma when there was so little hope of a good ending. I asked the vet to put her down, then and there. I put her dear head in my lap, and bawled uncontrollably as she fought to stay awake, embarrassing the vet. I felt so bad, having allowed her to suffer for 3 whole days due to my ignorance. Toni later tried to console me, saying she probably severed the nerve and didn't feel much pain, which was why she didn't move the leg after the injury. Joe felt terrible that he hadn't been here to help.

The lesson here is: a dragging foot probably means a broken leg, which is just as difficult and expensive to try to heal as in a race horse. "They shoot horses, don't they?"

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