Teeth & Toenail Trimming

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Alpacas have a soft pad on their feet, similar to the pads on a dog’s foot. These pads are protected by a tough triangular shaped toenail, which constantly grows. On stony ground the toenails are naturally ground down, but most NZ alpaca owners keep their alpacas on soft pasture, and as a result, the toenails grow unchecked.

For this reason, most alpaca farmers trim the toenails from time to time. Use clippers with two sharp blades and trim back the excess toenail until the toenail is level with the footpad – remember that the base of the toenail has a blood supply and sensation , so if you trim back the toenail too far you will not only cause bleeding but pain also, much the same as if you tear your own fingernail back too far.

Interestingly, white toenails grow much faster than dark toenails! We have found our white animals need to have their toenails trimmed every three or four months, while the dark coloured animals, maybe once a year! So if you have animals with white toenails keep a close check on their growth.

Toenail trimming is usually a two-person job. Have an assistant hold and steady your alpaca so it is well balanced while you concentrate on its feet. Training your alpaca to allow you to pick its feet up will facilitate this task. If your alpaca is untrained and uncooperative (remember he doesn’t know what you are doing, not just being difficult), you may find it easier to combine toenail trimming with shearing (do the toenails before releasing your alpaca), or during mating (both males and females!).

Teeth trimming:

Alpacas have only one set of teeth, on the bottom. These teeth are totally dissimilar to our own, more like a fingernail in composition – except much thicker and tougher, of course. On the top jaw they have a hard dental pad, and eat by trapping grass between their teeth and the dental pad and nipping it off.

Incorrect alignment of the teeth and dental pad occurs in some alpacas, and is unfortunately an inheritable (genetic) trait. The mis-alignment most often occurs from an overshot lower jaw, so that the teeth protrude in front of the dental pad and – in extreme cases  – outside the lips. The obvious problem with this defect is that it can lead to eating difficulties and starvation in the midst of plenty; although most alpacas on good feed seem to manage amazingly well. If you have an alpaca with this problem, you must keep an extra check on its condition (weight), as a thick fleece will disguise an under-nourished alpaca – see “Body Scoring”. Alpacas lose their baby teeth over a period of months as young adults. At this time it can be difficult to determine whether a young alpaca has an overshot jaw as the adult teeth are only just protruding through the gum, while the loosening baby teeth poke out in all directions!

Alpacas with this fault should never be used for breeding. Unfortunately,many people are unaware that this is an inheritable fault, and thus continue to breed alpacas with protruding teeth, so the problem is quite widespread. While the fault can be a disadvantage when feed is short, a little extra maintenance on the owner’s part will prevent a problem developing.

Teeth can be trimmed by grinding with an electric grinder – however a guard needs to be used to ensure the teeth are not ground back too far.  The easiest method for most people is to chip pieces from the teeth with a pair of side cutters until the teeth have been shortened back to a point where they meet the dental pad. Rough edges should then be smoothed using a standard carpenter’s file with a fine to medium rasp.  This method takes longer than an electric grinder but has the advantages that you are not so likely to overdo it and the outlay is significantly less.

Teeth trimming is best undertaken when you have your alpaca constrained for shearing. Place a short length of 2cm diameter polythene hose between the jaws to keep the alpaca’s mouth open while you work on the teeth.

If you are careful to purchase alpacas with correct teeth alignment, you will never have to trim their teeth – or those of subsequent generations – providing of course, you don’t breed your good alpaca to an alpaca with protruding teeth!