By Way of Introduction . . .
The alpaca is one of four species of South American camelids. (The other
three are the llama which is also a domestic animal and the vicuna and guanaco which exist only in the
wild.) All are browsers and grazers and, being similar to ruminants, chew their cud. They
share the camel's even toed, padded foot and unique style of lying (kushing) down with
their front legs bent and directed backwards. Camelids are smaller than camels
and lack the latter's distinctive hump. The alpaca is the smallest of the
domesticated South American camelids and is known for its abundant, fine
fiber and gentle nature.
Until quite recently alpacas were almost non-existent outside
of their native land, and few persons in this country could do
more than associate the word "alpaca" with a luxurious
type of sweater. Now that alpacas are establishing themselves in
North America, more people are getting a glimpse of these
delightful wooly animals and are asking questions about them.
Brief History of Alpacas
As a group, South American camelids date back two million years.
Current theory suggests that the alpaca is a descendent of the vicuna with
its domestication taking place some six to seven thousand years ago. Alpaca
breeding and husbandry reached a peak in the 11th and 12th centuries AD under the Inca Empire. During this period alpaca and llama breeding
was conducted by a state organization whose members all belonged to a special
nobility. Alpacas were the most valuable domestic animals of the time and
were intensively selected for production of copious, fine fiber and for the
perpetuation of the species. Through the centuries alpacas have also served
as a source of meat and played an important role in the religion of their
caretakers. Two consequences of the 16th century Spanish conquest--the arrival of new domestic animals from Europe and the development of
mining as the most lucrative business activity in Peru--drove the alpaca
from its pedestal in the Inca Empire and relegated the species to the higher
elevations of Bolivia and Peru. Alpaca numbers dropped and husbandry practices deteriorated in the hands of the native Andean herders
whose very life was a struggle on harsh "alto plano." Finally in the 1920's,
appreciation for alpaca fiber experienced a rebirth. By the 1980's alpaca
fiber production had risen to a strategic economic resource in Peru. Today
Peru, which has over 85% of the world population of alpacas, considers the
species a natural resource worthy of protection.
Until the 1980's only a very few alpacas existed in North America, and these were scattered among a few zoos and private collections. The
brief lifting of importation restrictions in 1983 and 1984 enabled the entry of
alpacas from Chile and brought the North American population to some 500-600 head. Another group of alpacas arrived from Chile in 1988.
In the 1990's, alpacas have come to North America from Australia, Bolivia,
Chile, Peru and New Zealand. Importation came to a halt with the closure of
the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI), in 1999.
Physical - Alpacas are recognized by their compact size; abundant,
soft fiber; long necks and ears that typically point slightly outward. Their
short, wedge-shaped heads are adorned with much wool and large, expressive
eyes. The alpaca's tail is naturally short and low set, often giving the
alpaca the appearance of having a rounded rear end. The rear legs of the
alpaca may be set very slightly under, but the hocks should never be
sickled. The alpaca's front legs should look straight or nearly straight
when viewed from the front. Their soft, padded feet have two toes from which nails grow out and down. This foot design, together with their
small size allows them to tread very lightly over the terrain. Alpacas lack upper
front teeth and enamel is absent from the insides of their lower incisors.
They grasp forage with their agile split upper lip, nip it off with the action of their lower incisors against their upper pallet then grind
their foodstuffs with their molars. Adult alpacas usually weigh between 120 and
170 pounds and stand 30 to 40 inches at the withers. Alpacas come in a multitude of colors, twenty-two of which are recognized by the
alpaca fiber industry. Besides basic white and black, there are many beautiful
shades of brown, gray, tan and fawn. White markings are often decorate the
face, necks, legs and feet of alpacas. The blanket (or piebald) pattern exists in
the species and occasional individuals are decorated with fancy spots.
There are two breeds of alpacas, the huacaya and the suri. They are similar
in size and form but easily differentiated by their distinctive types of
fiber. The huacaya's dense fiber grows straight out from its body and has
crimp (many small undulations along its length) giving the animal the look
of a soft, natural sponge. The finer, straight fiber of the suri tends to
part along the length of the spine and hang from the animal much like the
hair on an afghan hound. Neither
huacayas nor suri breed 100% true and intermediate forms have been referred to as "chilis." Huacayas are
the most numerous breed in both South and North America.
Alpaca fiber is prized for its softness (equivalent to mohair and surpassed
only by vicuna), uniform fineness and strength. (It is three times stronger
than sheep's wool.) Alpacas typically have finer fiber than llamas, and the
very coarse guard hairs that are abundant on most llamas are absent in the
blanket of the alpaca. The best fiber (softest, finest, most uniform and
dense) is found on the alpaca's sides and loin. The leg, chest, face and
neck wool may have thicker, less uniform fibers.
Alpacas are very herd orientated and usually prefer
the company of their own kind to that of other species. Within the herd there
is a hierarchy of dominant and less assertive animals. When frightened, alpacas tend to band together which simplifies moving them as a
The gentle character of alpacas makes them easy to handle by persons who
understand their ways. While alpacas must become accustomed to human touch,
most can easily be trained to halter and accept people. Rarely handled animals usually require some form of restraint for treatments but
this can usually be accomplished by one person holding the animal. Adult male
alpacas are typically less aggressive among themselves and with humans than
are their North American livestock equivalents. Most male alpacas can be
kept together in non-breeding situations and some in breeding situations as
Alpacas communicate with a variety of mostly quiet noises, body postures
and an occasional spit when confronted by extreme adversity. Their most common sound is a soft, pleasant humming. Other utterances include a
sad sigh when distressed and the alarm call of the "watch paco" to signal the
approach of an intruder. Some mother alpacas actually cluck to their new
born babies. Posturing is done with the ears, neck and tail and is often
used to maintain the pecking order of the herd. Young alpacas are especially curious and often communicate by sniffing and touching
Alpacas love water and use it as a cooling device in warm weather. Most enjoy ponds, pools and sprinklers and will come running when they
recognize a person with a hose. Lying in water for extended periods of time,
besides being immediately cooling to the animal, does cause fiber loss on
the alpaca's legs and underside. (They do not become bald but appear shorn in
As rare and treasured as alpacas are in North America, they are
essentially domestic animals that have been bred for thousands of years for fine
fiber with consideration also given to meat production and ease of handling. In
North America alpacas are appreciated for their fiber, form, gentleness and
amusing personalities. While the emphasis of the infant industry is on the
production and perpetuation of the species in the U.S. and Canada, alpacas
are also purchased as fiber sources, show animals, pets and living forms of
Most alpacas are easily halter broken at about the time they are weaned and
make nice walking companions. They may be trained to maneuver obstacles and
carry a picnic lunch. (Being relatively small themselves, they are not suitable for carrying heavy loads.) Tidy by
nature and compact in size, pet alpacas may be invited into the house or transported in the back of
the family wagon or van for a visit to the relatives or local school. In
fact, even untrained adults are commonly transported this way without incident
since they tend to lie down once the vehicle is moving.
Provisions for Alpacas
While alpacas like to investigate new areas, they do not
tend to run away so keeping them home is seldom a problem. However, adequate
fencing is critical to their survival. Exterior fencing must be high enough
and tight enough to keep out all potential predators including the neighbor's dog. Woven wire or any solid material that rises from
ground level to a height of five feet usually suffices. For added protection, some
owners add an electric wire along the top and sometimes also along the bottom. Internally, any combination of
boards, woven wire, cables and barbless wire that stands about four feet and does not allow the
smallest animals to escape under or through will do.
Alpacas are hardy creatures that adapt to all climates and
have minimal requirements in the way of shelter. Access to an open barn or shed
that offers protection from storms and ample shade in the warmer seasons is
all that is usually needed and is preferred to strict confinement.
Extremely efficient utilizers of feed, alpacas do well on
pasture or clean, grass-type hays. Overfeeding and dependence on the use of
protein-rich hays, such as alfalfa, are unhealthy and should be avoided.
Females in their last trimester of pregnancy, nursing mothers and growing
youngsters require higher levels of protein (about 12%) and may benefit from supplemental feeding. Fresh water should always be
available along with mineral salt. Alpacas are sensitive to the deprivation of
essential minerals including, but not limited to, selenium and phosphorus.
When green forage or hay from areas of specific deficiencies is fed, animals
must be directly compensated for the mineral(s) that are lacking in their
Although generally hardy and disease resistant
animals, alpacas greatly benefit by preventative medicine and ready access to
veterinary services. A priority for new alpaca owners should be to enlist
the services of a veterinarian with alpaca and/or llama experience or, if
none is available, find a local veterinarian that is interested in the species and very willing to learn. A health program should include
vaccinations to protect against enterotoxemia, tetanus and other diseases of
local concern, as well as, control of internal and external parasites.
An alpaca's nails should be trimmed regularly and not allowed to grow long
and curl. Their teeth should be inspected and incisors trimmed if excessively long. The fighting teeth of adult males are often cut
off at gum level. Shearing alpacas, at least every second year, will further
add to their happiness and well being.
Female alpacas are ready for breeding when they have reached 75% of
their adult weight which usually occurs between 12 and 24 months of age.
Since a few may become pregnant as early as 6 months of age, it is important
to separate young ladies from intact males from this age until they are ready
for breeding. Sexually mature females are induced ovulators and do not exhibit estrus cycles typical of most domesticated
animals. If not pregnant, a mature female is usually "open" or "receptive" to
breeding but must have a follicle at the right stage of maturity at the time of
breeding in order to conceive. However, with two active ovaries and typically
overlapping follicle production cycles, the time is often right for conception.
Males mature more slowly than females and typically begin breeding
at 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. Some, however, are precocious as youngsters and
should be separated at about 8 months of age from receptive females since
fertilization by a young male is possible any time after the penis no longer adheres to the prepuce (sheath).
Breeding is done in a prone position and takes at least 15 minutes
since the male dribbles, rather than ejaculates, semen into the uterus of
the female. While breeding, the male makes a continuous orgling noise and
moves his front legs occasionally along the sides of the female. The mating
process induces the female to ovulate so that she can become pregnant.
Methods for determining pregnancy beginning at ca. 14 days after
copulation include: (1) observing a female's receptivity to an intact male, (2)
determining blood progesterone levels and (3) internal ultrasonography. The
first two procedures are indirect assessments and at times may be misleading. Somewhat later, rectal palpation and
external ultrasonography can be useful in determining pregnancy. Unfortunately, the anatomy
of some female alpacas is too small to allow rectal palpation or visualization of
the pregnancy by internal ultrasound. However, external ultrasound may be
used with alpacas of all sizes to directly visualize pregnancies. This non-invasive procedure
continues to be a useful diagnostic procedure after the position of the growing fetus has dropped lower into its
The gestation period for alpacas is approximately eleven months, and
females invariably produce a single baby. The young are called crias and
normally weigh from 15 to 20 pounds at birth. They are usually ready for
weaning at 5 - 6 months.
The Alpaca Registry
Specifications for a new alpaca registry which would document the
pedigrees of registered animals and help assure the perpetuation of the alpaca
as a unique species in North America were drawn up and approved by the Alpaca
Owners and Breeders Association in 1988. The Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI)
has received widespread support from the alpaca community and is now closed
registry. ARI requires DNA typing of all alpacas and only animals which
qualify by blood typing or DNA analysis as the offspring of registered alpacas are eligible for
The Alpaca Market
Alpacas are in limited supply in North America. As a consequence,
alpacas are not inexpensive creatures. Finding the right alpaca can take
more effort than shopping for a horse or goat but can be both a rewarding
experience and an investment in the future.
Many people who own alpacas also delight in showing them. A uniform
show format for registered alpacas is included in the current Alpaca and
Llama Show Association (ALSA) handbook. In approved halter classes alpacas
are divided by color, sex and age. Individuals within each group are judged on
the basis of conformation and fleece. Many shows also have classes for shorn fleeces.
The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA) is a national
organization dedicated to the perpetuation of alpacas in North America. It
strives to educate both owners and non-owners about alpacas and to promote
alpacas to the general public. AOBA is governed by a constitution and set
of bylaws, and its affairs are handled by a board of directors elected by
the AOBA membership. In addition to the national organization, local clubs are springing up for alpaca
enthusiasts. The first, CALpaca, was formed when a group of 14 alpaca owners in Northern California
gathered to talk about their experiences raising alpacas. There are now groups in many parts of the United
States and Canada.
© Copyright 1989 Susan Stackhouse