Alpacas, in general,are excellent mothers, and your only involvement in feeding your cria will be watching from the sidelines! However, whenever you are breeding animals, there is always the possibility that something can go wrong, and you should be prepared to step in and assist. When a cria loses its mother, or is unable to get sufficient sustenance from her for any reason, bottle-feeding may be your only option as it is very rare for a female alpaca to adopt the offspring of another female.
If bottle-feeding is required from birth, then it is vital that some form of colostrum is supplied to the cria in the first 2 days. Baby animals of any species have an inadequately functioning immune system at birth, and are unable to manufacture antibodies against disease until they are 6-8 weeks old. To give early protection from disease, the maternal animal produces a substance called colostrum, rather than milk, for up to 24 hours after giving birth.
The colostrum contains antibodies from the mother’s immune system, and the suckling infant absorbs these antibodies to give it the same protection from disease as its mother has. Over the first 24-36 hours after birth, the ratio of colostrum to milk decreases, until by 36 hours, the maternal animal is producing milk only. Colostrum is made up of considerably larger proteins than milk, or other food substances, and the baby animal for the first 24-36 hours of is capable of digesting these large proteins, however, once this initial time period is past, the infant becomes unable to digest the large proteins, and continuing to feed colostrum after this point is valueless. Those first few hours are vital!
Failure to supply your cria with colostrum can be fatal, and the danger increases the larger your herd size. It is possible to get artificial colostrum in a powder form to keep on hand in case of a potential problem, however it is a very costly product and deteriorates over time, so you may end up replacing it several times without ever using it. You should be able to source powdered colostrum from your Farm Supplies retailer.
Another option is the administration of plasma donated by a healthy adult. Frozen plasma has a shelf life of 12 months, but is an invaluable part of your health care kit, and is the best health option for your cria. Plasma is best administered by your vet, for although it can be added to your crias milk feed, he will receive only only a quarter the benefit of IP infusion. Plasma is particularly helpful for cria who are to weak to suck. For more information see Plasma Infusions. A teaspoon of honey directly in the mouth may also give a weak cria the strength to suck from a bottle. If your cria is not suckling from mum or a bottle call your vet! Those first few feeds are critical to survival.
Other options for supplying colostrum can be to use fresh colostrum from other species, in order of preference deer, goat, cow. We got some cow colostrum from a local dairy farmer and froze it in case of need – this worked, but did create some constipation in the cria we fed it too. We dealt with this by giving the cria a small amount (2-3ml) of olive oil once daily for 2-3 days. Constipation can be a serious problem, just as scours can be, so you need to be vigilant if you opt to give colostrum from another species.
Anlamb, a milk replacer manufactured in New Zealand for lambs, has been found by Agresearch to be the best formulation for feeding to cria, being closest to alpaca milk in its formulation. Apparently there is also a calf milk replacer called Supacalf, which can be used, though we have not tried this product ourselves. Both these products should be available from your farm supplies retailer. One vital point to remember when bottle-feeding any animal is the changes to the formula being given should be made gradually over a period of a few days – never switch suddenly from one formula to another, this is a grave risk to your cria’s health!
Murphy’s law dictates that any emergency will happen after the shops shut or the vet knocks off, especially at long weekends! We had this happen with 1 cria, and in desperation purchased liquid goats milk from the local supermarket to keep her going until we could purchase Anlamb. Not to be recommended, but our cria showed no ill effects!
Cria drink the equivalent of 10% of their bodyweight (approx.) daily, broken down initially into six of around 100ml per feed. We have found it best to offer the cria more than we expect it to drink in any one feed, and it will stop drinking as soon as it is full, thus ensuring it is not being underfed. They are very good at drinking what they need, so there is little need for concern if it is sometimes more, or sometimes less. We usually start with 2 hourly feeds through daytime (there is no need to feed during the hours of darkness, unless you have a very weak cria). Over time, you can cut down the number of feeds per day until by about 6 weeks you are feeding 3 times daily. It is easiest to make up a day’s batch at a time, and keep in the fridge, only taking what you need for each feed through the day. It can be readily warmed in a microwave – but be warned, it heats very quickly! Milk that has been overheated has no nutritional value and should be discarded. It is best to “nuke” for only a few seconds at a time until it reaches the required temperature. Never put rubber teats in the microwave, they will perish, and microwave manufacturers recommend that bottles are not used in a microwave. Test for temperature the same way as for human baby formulas – by testing the milk on the inside of your wrist. You should either not be able to feel the milk at all, or it should feel very slightly warm. Any feeling of coolness at all, and it is not warm enough!
Equipment: You can purchase feeding bottles from your farm supplies retailer – or use an old soft drink bottle. Rubber teats for feeding lambs are also available from your supplier – these do not come pre-perforated, you will need to cut the tip off if your cria is to get any milk! Cleanliness is vital: you should regularly soak your bottle and teat in an antibacterial solution. This is available from your supermarket – buy a product intended for sterilising human baby bottles, and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
When feeding your cria, try to get the cria to feed in as similar a manner to natural feeding as possible. Watch how your cria suckle from their mothers – they bend their head and neck so it is almost upright. In this position the milk goes directly to their 3rd stomach, and they get maximum benefit from it, and you should seek to emulate this.
Cria are able to survive without milk from as young as 3 months, so you should plan to feed your cria for at least this long. We tend to feed for 5-6 months, just the same as we would leave a cria with its mother, to ensure they have the best start in life they can.
We have bottle-fed a number of cria from birth, and had no problems with either, apart from the constipation mentioned earlier. If you have to start feeding an older cria who has had some mother’s milk, you may have a problem with scouring. Try adding an anti-scour agent such as Biopect, but only for 2-3 days, or you may over do it and constipate your cria!
Weighing bottle-fed cria is essential – it is your first warning that things are not going well. Apart from a normal drop in birth weight on day 1, your cria should gain weight every day, even if only a few grams. Failure to put on weight always means a problem and you would be smart to consult your vet without delay.
Where a cria has failed to get maternal colostrum, we recommend that you vaccinate at the minimum age of 6 weeks.
Bottle-fed cria should never be taken away from the herd for your convenience. It is important that your cria grows up knowing it is an alpaca, and learning proper alpaca behaviour. Making a pet of your bottle-fed alpaca can lead to behavioural problems as an adult – read our article on Novice Handler Syndrome.
If you have a weak cria that needs to be kept indoors, put one or two adult females with cria in with him for company. Cria that become over-dependent on humans become problem adults to the point of being dangerous! It is essential that your bottle-fed cria identifies with other alpacas, and not with people. Keep handling to a minimum, do not pet, stroke, cuddle or play with your orphan; simply feed him, and then walk away. This is hard to do because your baby will be very friendly, but is vital for his mental and emotional health, and eventually, your physical safety. Aggression in adult alpacas (particularly males) that have been bottle-fed is a well-known condition, and is common enough to be given a name “novice handler syndrome”, also known as “aberrant behaviour syndrome” and “berserk alpaca syndrome”. It can be avoided! Harden your heart and keep a distance between yourself and your orphan – he will do well enough living in the herd even without a mother, and the company of other alpaca to teach him to behave like an alpaca is the best prevention of all.
While a cria can survive without milk from 3 months of age, we recommend you continue to offer a bottle until he is 5-6 months old. This will ensure he is receiving adequate calcium for good bone development. However some cria choose for themselves when they no longer require a bottle and if they are older than 3 months no harm should occur.