URBANA, Ill. — While humans have the unique ability to pass immunoglobulins, also known as antibodies, through the placenta during pregnancy, many animals cannot. In particular, llamas and alpacas, whose young are called “crias,” have a different placental structure than humans and are unable to transmit antibodies from mother to fetus.
Failure of passive transfer, abbreviated as FPT, is a common occurrence in veterinary medicine. It can happen in foals, calves, crias, and several other animals.
If a newborn does not acquire enough antibodies from nursing its dam within the first 24 hours, it is predisposed to septicemia (blood infection), diarrhea, arthritis, and pneumonia to name a few.
Varsha Ramoutar is a resident in the Food Animal Reproductive Medicine and Surgery section at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.
“If we suspect FPT or partial failure of passive transfer we run an IgG analysis,” said Ramoutar.
By simply drawing blood from the cria they can measure levels of a specific antibody named IgG. If blood levels fall short of the 1000mg/dl cut-off, the cria may need further attention and perhaps require a plasma transfusion.
FPT can occur for many reasons. A cria may be premature and too weak to nurse, or its mother may not be producing colostrum yet.
Colostrum is the thick yellow ‘first milk’ or secretion from the mammary gland. In some cases, llama and alpaca moms simply do not produce adequate colostrum, or enough antibodies. To correct the problem, the cria needs to receive antibodies.
But there’s a catch. The window for a newborn to absorb IgGs closes around 24 hours after birth. If the cria can’t nurse or the mom has no colostrum, a plasma transfusion can be performed.
Plasma, the part of blood that contains antibodies, can be bought and stored in a freezer until it is needed.
Ramoutar explains that, frozen plasma usually comes from vaccinated females that are routinely vaccinated to keep their IgG status high.
In cases where the cria will need continued support with feedings, “a lot of owners tend to tube feed,” said Ramoutar, “but we try to deter them from doing so.”
That’s because tube-fed babies are predisposed to gastric ulcers, and fermentation of milk in a compartment of the digestive system that is not equipped to digest milk or colostrum.
Bottle feeding is better, but that too can be problematic. It has been shown in many species that bottle-fed babies tend to treat humans like another member of the herd when they get older.
While a dog that sniffs your nose when you come home is one thing, being head butted by a 400-pound llama is probably not your preferred method of saying hello.
“Male crias should not be handled a lot,” Ramoutar.
That is because of a cleverly-named condition called ‘berserk male syndrome.’ While it has not been studied extensively, it is thought to affect male llamas and alpacas that have been overly socialized to people.
In September 2007, the Associated Press covered a story about a woman who went jogging and unfortunately ran into a llama with the disorder.
The article notes that, “the llama knocked [her] down, stomped its feet, spit, and bit,” before the women’s daughter could call for help.
While newborns of any species look irresistible, Ramoutar says, “Do not intervene within the first two hours of life, unless you suspect hypothermia or hyperthermia especially with a difficult birthing.”
Crias should stand in the first 30 minutes and nurse within two to four hours. But if they don’t, you can follow your llama mama instincts and step in.