Llamas and Alpacas are not commonly thought of as pets; both have gained bad reputations as “spitters”. While it is true that they spit, this is how they protect themselves and their personal space. A tame llama or alpaca will not spit at its’ owner. In fact if well socialized they will run towards you looking for treats.
Llamas and Alpacas have been used as pack animals, guard animals, or for their fiber. In some areas of the world they are used for their meat. They are very hardy and versatile. They are both camelids, but have a few differences. Alpacas are usually under 100 kg, and Llamas are usually over 110 kg. Llamas have been used more for pack animals while Alpacas have been used more for their fiber, as such Llamas have tended to be the more social animal of the two, but many people find Alpacas to be very personable. We wont get into the differences in Fiber here as it is all very technical and has little to do with keeping them as pets.
Young llama in front (a yearly male) and an alpaca in back. A third llama is in the middle (head down).
Young of both are called crias, and they generally are mature at two years of age. Gestation is about one year. There are many different hair lengths and types which you may find worth considering if you are interested in collecting their fiber.
Llamas and Alpacas do make sounds, rather like moans, hums, or whines.
Selecting the Perfect Llama or Alpaca
Do you want a pet only or will this animal be used for fiber, show, or guard purposes? You can purchase pet llamas for very cheap. I have even seen them go for free, this is especially true of unregistered male llamas who may not have been handled.
Llamas and Alpacas where first introduced to North American buyers as a money making exotic pet, but the market has declined so that only the very cream of the crop show llamas or alpacas are the ones that cost thousands of dollars. If you want a show animal you should purchase one from a show home, where the parents were both shown to prove they are producing top quality, and of course make sure you get a registered animal.
However the best guard or pet animals may be the cheaper ones. Solitary males may be somewhat aggressive towards your livestock, so you may want a gelded male or a female. If you are selecting a pet Llama or Alpaca, you should pick a friendly one, preferably one who is halter trained. They are naturally curious, a friendly Llama or Alpaca may come bounding towards you to give you their friendly version of a hug, which can be both a frightening and interesting experience for the new owner. Do not allow them to invade your personal space, especially with young males as they will soon take this for granted.
You can find Llamas and Alpacas for sale in livestock websites (often under guard animals) or at some exotic livestock auctions, or in hobby farm magazines. If you ask around you can probably find somebody who knows somebody with some for sale. I live in Alberta, Canada, and the pet quality ones are frequently sold in auctions here for under $50.
Housing and Fencing
Llamas and Alpacas can live outdoors year round even in a cold climate, however they do require shelter from the wind, sun, and snow. I have found they can be hard on any fences that they lean on to get the grass from the other side. Llamas always think the grass is greener on the other side. As such barbed wire or electric fencing is good.
Feed and Care
Llamas and Alpacas are quite easy keepers. Often kept with sheep, they have similar requirements. They can graze freely in the summer, and be fed hay in the winter. I do give mine a good handful of oats twice a day in the winter, but if you prefer you can buy them a special Llama or Alpaca ration from your local feed store. Like all animals they must have access to water, salt, and a mineral block. You want to be cautious against selenium deficiency or an over dose of copper (especially in copper enriched horse feeds). Increase the amount of oats or ration in pregnant animals.
If you live in an extremely hot climate, you may want to have your Llama or Alpaca sheared. This is not an easy process and is often only done every two years. You can try cutting some hair off the body if you cannot arrange a sheerer, but if you try this yourself do not cut too close or you may cut your pets skin, remember some hair is needed to protect your critter from the sun and insects. Or select one who does not have extremely long thick hair when you make your original purchase.
Their hooves do grow and may need trimming or may wear themselves down naturally on the ground. If the nails start to curl up or under and start to impede with your animals ability to get around it will be important to get some care for his or her hooves.
photo by my wife, our llama with a Jacob sheep lamb.
Commonly kept as guard animals against coyotes, you may find your Llama or Alpaca may take time to get used to your family dog. Keep the dog on leash until your Llama or Alpaca has realized this critter is allowed. For guard purposes they are better kept singly as this will help them stick with what ever form of livestock they are intended to protect.
When keeping camelids it is important to know that two or more males may be kept together as long as there are no females present. As soon as you introduce a female the males will begin to fight. The female will lay down to allow a male to breed her. If you are going to breed your Llama or Alpaca make sure to remove the male when the female is ready to give birth or he may accidentally harm the young cria in an attempt to mate with the female again, even while she is giving birth.
I currently own a Llama, and have had others in the past. Our Llama is kept as a pet and for guarding our sheep. She also has a donkey and a miniature horse as companions. If you do not have sheep, horses, or other animals to keep your Llama or Alpaca company you should get it a companion of the same species.