Alpacas are hardy pack animals native to the high altitudes of the Peruvian Andes. They've been living and working with humans for thousands of years—indigenous Andeans used them for packing, wool, and food long before the Inca civilization arrived. Now kept both as working animals and as pets, alpacas are loyal and intelligent and surprisingly easy to care for. It only takes some basic knowledge and the right environment for alpacas to thrive as pets. Learning about their needs is the first step to becoming a successful alpaca owner.
There are two predominant alpaca breeds in the Americas: Huacaya and Suri.
The Huacaya is the most common breed of domestic alpaca and accounts for about 90% of the species. These alpacas have soft, fluffy fleece and are raised primarily for their wool. When you think of alpacas, this is probably the breed you picture.
The Suri is much less common than the Huacaya, accounting for only about 10% of the species. They have long, shiny fleece that makes exceptionally soft fabrics. Suri wool is generally considered the highest-quality alpaca wool on the market.
Alpacas are mild-mannered and are generally content to stay within a fenced area. They don't need much space—you can keep three or four alpacas on one acre of land. However, you need to account for predators such as coyotes, cougars, and aggressive dogs. If you live in an area where these predatory animals are common, erect a fence at least six feet tall.
Alpacas are relatively easy to feed. During the spring and summer months, they can graze without much fuss. However, it's essential not to put them out to graze with sheep or goats on a regular basis. Both of these animals can sheer grasses to stubble, leaving the less-competitive alpaca with too little to eat.
During the fall and winter months, you can feed your alpaca a basic diet of grass hay. Just be sure to avoid alfalfa, which is too rich in protein for alpacas. Pregnant and nursing animals might need special supplements—your vet can tell you when and how to supplement your alpaca's diet.
Alpacas have been specially bred to produce wool. In fact, you might be shocked by how thick your alpaca's wool gets. Animals who aren't sheared annually are more likely to develop parasites and skin diseases than their properly groomed peers. Their coats can even become so thick that they can barely move.
You can avoid these issues and ensure your alpaca doesn't overheat in the summer by having your pet sheared at the end of every winter. If you don't want to hire a groomer, invest in good shears and do the job yourself. Your alpaca's hooves also need to be trimmed every three to four months.
Alpacas are both intelligent and easy to train, and taking the time with your new pet is worth the effort. Use a harness with a lead rope to walk your alpaca when it's young. Regular walks will help you bond with your new pet while teaching basic obedience.
It's also important to train your alpaca to travel without fuss. You want your pet to feel calm and secure if it needs to be transported to the vet or taken to a show. Be gentle. Try gently ushering your pet into the back of a truck or SUV and encouraging them to lie down.
Once you have basic training down, you can teach your pet some tricks. Many alpaca owners set up an obstacle course for their animals, and you can even take them to compete at alpaca shows. Of course, teaching your alpaca how to negotiate obstacles is more than just fun. It's also a great way to prepare your pet for emergencies.
Alpacas don't demand much, but they'll need at least a three-sided structure to hide from the elements. If you live in an extremely cold or hot area, a barn that offers full shelter may be a better choice. However, you should never force your alpaca into its shelter. Some animals enjoy being out in the elements.
Alpacas are friendly, sociable animals that can be housed with llamas, sheep, and goats. However, while they can shelter in the same barn, they should not be fed together. Other animals can be more competitive, and your alpaca may be deprived of adequate nutrition.
Alpacas will spit if they are threatened, but they are not aggressive animals. If you live in an area with predators, it's essential to erect a tall fence and use motion lights to discourage predators from attacking.
Like any other pet, your alpaca should visit the vet annually. Your alpaca needs a full physical checkup and up-to-date vaccinations to stay healthy. Choose a veterinarian who specializes in livestock animals to care for your pet.
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