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There are at least 3 conditions which result in “staggers” type symptoms, the severity of which can vary from a mild head tremor to animals unable to keep their balance and prone to falling over. The most common cause is Rye Grass Staggers, caused by a toxin producing endophyte, however there is also a condition known simply as Grass Staggers which is a magnesium deficency, and a third known as Polioencephalomacia or PEM (thiamine deficiency). Determining which forms of staggers has afffected your alpacas may be for your vet to diagnose, but there are some pointers :

  • If you don’t have ryegrass, you won’t have ryegrass staggers
  • Ryegrass staggers typically occurs in Spring or in Autumn drought conditions when grass is nibbled close to the soil
  • Ryegrass staggers does not normally occur in Winter, although stress may cause symptoms to reoccur
  • Grass Staggers (magnesium deficency) is worst in Spring or cool, damp Autumns
  • Grass Staggers is normally seen in pregnant and/or lactating females
  • PEM is usually seen in Winter when morning dew is heavy.
  • PEM symptoms can include blindness and walking in circles

Since grass staggers and PEM are dietary deficiencies, inclusion of a dietary supplement such as tracemol may prevent such condition occurring. Removal of rye grass from your property will prevent rye grass staggers – see our article on pasture plants.

Grass Staggers (magnesium defiency):

Also known as Hypomagnesaemia or Lactation Tetany. It is most evident in rapidly growing pasture in spring and autumn in mild, wet conditions. This growth has a lower content of magnesium available than mature pasture. Soil tests may show that magnesium levels are adequate, but the alpacas are unable to uptake enough for their requirements, especially if they are pregnant or lactating. The remedy is magnesium. Prevention is better than cure: lush pasture often has a high water content, so that the alpaca may have a full gut, but be unable to meet its daily nutritional requirements. Feeding hay in Spring and Autumn even when there is plenty of grass will help alleviate the possibility of this occuring.

PEM is caused by thiamine deficiency. Heavy dew causes a fungus to grow in the grass, and when ingested, inhibits the uptake of thiamine in most ruminants. Treatment is Duoject (vitamin B1/B2). Again, hay feeding is likely to reduce the incidence of this condition, as is the addition of a vitamin supplement.

Rye Grass Staggers
A condition that affects most livestock, including cattle, sheep, horses, and, of course alpacas. It is very random in its attack, as sometimes only 1 or 2 animals in a herd may be affected, while the rest do not appear to suffer any ill effects at all. It is more prevalent in young stock, and if a young alpaca reaches 2 years of age without being affected, it is likely it will never suffer an attack. There is no cure but prompt treatment can alleviate symptoms. Affected animals will show an improvement after being removed from rye grass pasture, but symptoms will quickly return if the animal is returned to its pasture.

Most sheep farmers consider rye grass as the pasture of choice for traditional livestock, and there are few farms or sub-divided blocks of land that have not at some time been sown with rye grass. Rye grass is very high in protein, and ideal for fattening stock for the meat market, and for this reason there often seems to be a rather blasé attitude to animals being affected by rye grass staggers, as affected animals are likely to be headed to the meat works soon – but it is an unpleasant affliction and you should take every precaution to prevent your alpaca being a victim.

One of the drawbacks of sowing rye grass is a pest called the Argentinean rye grass weevil, which eats out the roots of the rye grass, leaving pasture with large bare patches. In an effort to prevent this, the grass seed is deliberately “infected” with an endophyte which “preys” on the weevil. This endophyte unfortunately produces a toxin which poisons the nervous system of grazing animals, causing lack of co-ordination in the affected animal.

The endophyte normally lives at the base of the grass, near the earth line, and is therefore not a problem to grazing animals nipping off the top of the grass. However, in periods of rapid grass growth, it is dragged up the stem of the grass, making it accessible to grazing animals. As a result, rye grass staggers are most often seen in spring or autumn. Periods of drought in summer are also a problem, as animals nip the grass down near the earth line.

Symptoms of rye grass staggers include the head wobbling, stumbling and falling. Symptoms are increased when the animal is under stress, including herding or any unusual circumstance. Grass staggers is rarely fatal, but the affected animal is more prone to accidents because of its lack of co-ordination, and because they startle easily.

As stated earlier – there is no cure for rye grass staggers, although fortunately symptoms disappear if the animal is removed from rye grass pasture. If you observe symptoms of rye grass staggers in your alpaca, you will need to pen him (with a companion) and feed them hay and a few stock food nuts until he recovers. The earlier you identify the syndrome and remove the animal from pasture, the less severe the symptoms will become. He cannot be returned to rye grass pasture as symptoms will quickly return, but can be turned out onto pasture that does not contain rye grass. An animal once affected by rye grass staggers will always be susceptible to it, and you must ensure that during “danger” periods he does not have access to rye grass. (Our vet advised us that hay made from rye grass is not always safe to feed as the endophyte is not necessarily destroyed during the drying process).

Rye grass is not the pasture of choice for alpacas! As mentioned before, it is high in protein – and it is high protein levels that will coarsen your alpaca’s fleece. Alpacas do best on a variety of pasture grasses and herbs that do not include rye grass. There is now an endophyte-free rye grass that has been developed – do not accept advice from seed merchants that this may be suitable for your alpacas – it will not give them grass staggers, but it is still too high in protein, and under irrigation may even give them diarrhoea. The best cure for rye grass staggers is prevention, and if your property has a high proportion of rye grass, then your best solution, both for your alpacas health and the quality of your fleece, is to re-sow your paddocks with a more suitable mix for alpacas. If this seems an expensive option, take heart – you can re- sow 1 or 2 fields a year until your property no longer comprises rye grass paddocks. Check out our Pasture Plants page – there are a couple of seed mixes down the bottom of this page that will help keep your alpacas in optimum health.