(reviewed July 2021)
The Alpaca (vicugña pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid.
What is an alpaca?
Alpacas (vicugña pacos) are members of the Camelid Family and are a domesticated species of the South American camelid. Camelids originated in North America over 40 million years ago. Camels migrated east via the Bering Strait and llamas migrated to South America.
Today there are five recognized camelids breeds: camels, llamas, guanacos, alpacas, and vicunas. They vary by size and purpose, some being used primarily as pack animals and others valued for their fiber. All are used in a secondary meat market. Camels, llamas, and alpacas have been domesticated for thousands of years, whereas guanacos and vicunas continue to roam freely in herds. Many people are familiar with humped camels: the dromedary of Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Southern Asia, and the Bactrian camel of China and Tibet. Next in size is the llama (domesticated guanaco), followed by the alpaca (domesticated vicuna).
The alpaca comes in two breed types: huacaya (pronounced wuh-KAI-ya) and suri (SUR-ee). Huacayas, the more common type, account for about 85-90% of all alpacas. The two breed types vary primarily in terms of their fiber.
How long do alpacas live?
Generally, around 15 to 20 years. The longest documented lifespan of an alpaca is 28 years.
How are alpacas different from llamas?
People often confuse alpacas with llamas. While closely related, llamas and alpacas are very different animals. Llamas are much larger, about twice the size of an alpaca, with a weight range of 250 to 450 pounds. Alpacas weigh between 120 to 200 pounds. Llamas are primarily used for packing or for guarding herds of sheep or alpacas, whereas alpacas are primarily raised for their soft and luxurious fleece.
Are alpacas an "exotic species," or are they considered simply "livestock?"
Alpacas have been raised as domestic livestock for thousands of years. Since the end-product of alpacas is their fleece, like sheep, they are classified as livestock by both the United States and Canadian federal governments.
Do alpacas spit?
All members of the camel family use spitting as a means of negative communication. They do get possessive around food, and may express annoyance by spitting at other alpacas that they perceive are encroaching on "their" food. Also, they often spit at one another during squabbles within the herd (usually involving two or more males). From time to time alpacas do spit at people on purpose, but it is more common that humans get caught in the crossfire between alpacas, so it’s best to study their behavior and learn to avoid the most vulnerable situations.
Do alpacas make noise?
Alpacas are very quiet, docile animals that make a minimal amount of sound. They do make a humming sound as a means of communication or to express concern or stress. Most communication between alpacas is nonverbal.
Occasionally you will hear a shrill "alarm call," which usually means they have spotted something of concern nearby, and they are warning others in the herd. The concern may be a predator, or may be something they are not familiar with, like a cow or horse in a neighboring field. Male alpacas also "serenade" females during breeding with a guttural, throaty sound called "orgling."
Are alpacas dangerous?
No. Alpacas are pleasant to be around and generally easy to handle. Alpacas do not head-butt. They do not have horns or hooves like other livestock. They move gracefully and adroitly about the field and are therefore unlikely to run into or over anyone intentionally. Males develop sharp fighting teeth at about three years of age which can cause injury to both humans as well as other alpacas. Alpacas will reflexively kick with a hind leg, particularly if surprised from behind. While the impact of an alpaca kick is not on par with a horse, it can create a bruise. Also, there is potential for toenails to cut skin.
As with all livestock, owners and visitors should use common sense and a degree of caution when working around alpacas. People working with alpacas should wear long pants and shoes or boots that have traction and cover the whole foot. Proper handling of alpacas, as well as all camelids, requires humans gaining their trust by using a calm voice and light restraint. Handling alpacas for herd husbandry is best taught to novice alpaca owners by experienced owners or experts.
Is it OK to have just one alpaca?
No. Alpacas have very strong herd instincts and need the companionship of other alpacas to thrive, preferably three or more. Alpacas are livestock, and should not be treated as house pets.
Alpacas should be kept with their own sex with a few exceptions. One exception is that male crias need to be kept with their mothers until weaning. Gelded males should not be housed together with females, as they can repeatedly attempt to breed the females. This can lead to serious health consequences for the females.
Are alpacas easy to care for?
Alpacas are a small and relatively easy livestock to maintain. They stand about 36' high at the withers (where the neck and spine come together) and weigh between 120 to 200 pounds. Like other types of livestock, alpacas need basic shelter and protection from heat and foul weather. Good nutrition is essential for healthy animals. Hay, minerals, and fresh clean water should be available at all times. Many alpaca owners also provide a nutritional supplement. Under a veterinarian’s direction, alpacas need vaccinations, preventive medication, and deworming. Alpacas also require yearly shearing to keep them cool in the summer. Alpacas do not have hooves; instead they have two toes, with hard toenails on top and a soft pad on the bottom of their feet. Their padded feet minimize the impact on the pasture. To ensure proper foot alignment and comfort, their toenails must be trimmed as needed.
How much space does it take to raise an alpaca?
Alpacas are environmentally friendly and require less pasture and food compared to other livestock. Stocking density impacts the health of the animal, so owners are encouraged to carefully assess their space. Vegetation, access to food and water, and shelter are some factors that influence the amount of space needed.
Consult with your local agriculture authorities and breeders for specific recommendations for your area.
Are alpacas clean animals?
Yes, they are much cleaner than most livestock. Alpacas have a minimal aroma and tend to attract fewer flies in the summertime than other forms of livestock.
Alpacas often defecate in communal dung piles. There may be three or four of these areas in a pasture. This makes for easy clean-up, reduced opportunity for parasites, and better overall hygiene in the herd.
What do I need by way of shelter and fencing?
Shelter requirements vary depending on the weather and predators in the area. As a rule, alpacas need at least a three-sided open shelter where they can escape from the heat of the sun in summer and from icy wind and snow in winter. Alpacas appreciate good ventilation, and owners have found that large overhangs outside of the shelter are used more often than an enclosed barn.
In general, fencing construction and design is dictated by the threat of local predators. Also, fence openings need to be the correct size for alpacas to prevent injury from entangling their neck and limbs.
What do alpacas eat?
Alpacas mainly eat grass or hay. They consume approximately two pounds per 125 pounds of body weight or approximately 1.5% of the animal’s body weight daily in hay or fresh pasture. Grass hay is recommended, and alfalfa can be fed sparingly. Many owners feed higher rates of alfalfa to alpacas that are skinny, or live in very cold temperatures.
Alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, with a single stomach divided into three compartments. They produce rumen and chew cud and are able to process this modest amount of food very efficiently. Many alpacas (especially pregnant and lactating females) will benefit from nutritional and mineral supplements, depending on local conditions. There are several manufactured alpaca and llama feeds and mineral mixes available. Consult with your local veterinarian to ensure you are providing an appropriate diet for your area. Alpacas also need access to plenty of fresh water to drink.
Alpacas have two sets of teeth for processing food. They have molars in the back of the jaw for chewing cud. In the front, alpacas have teeth on the bottom only and a hard gum (known as a dental pad) on the top for crushing grain, grass, or hay. Unlike goats and sheep that have long tongues which can rip plants out of the ground, alpacas have short tongues and nibble only the tops of grasses and other plants. This results in less disturbance of the vegetation. Alpacas will often eat shrubs or the leaves from trees if given the opportunity. This requires monitoring to ensure they do not consume harmful products.
Can alpacas thrive in locations with very hot or very cold climates?
Generally, yes. Alpacas are amazingly resilient animals and have adapted successfully to the extremes of both very hot and very cold climates. In hot, humid climates, alpaca owners need to take extra precautions to make sure that the alpacas do not suffer from heat stress. These include shearing fleeces early in the year, providing fans and ventilation in the barn, and offering cool fresh water for drinking.
Does the birthing require human assistance?
In most cases, crias are born without intervention, and usually during daylight hours. A cria normally weighs between 15 and 19 pounds and is standing and nursing within 90 minutes of birth. The cria continues to nurse for about six months until it is weaned.
New owners are encouraged to prepare for cria births by reading about the process and having needed supplies on hand.
Are alpacas easy to train?
Alpacas are very smart animals and are fairly easy to train. It is best to start training them when they are young so that they will accept a halter and learn to follow on a lead. Many owners also enjoy training them to walk through obstacles. Some even compete with their alpacas at shows where they walk over, through, and around objects and also jump over small hurdles.
Also, it is helpful to train alpacas to ride in a trailer or van if they ever need to be transported to a show or another farm. Alpacas are easy to transport, as they normally cush (lay down with their legs folded under them) when traveling. Be aware that alpacas should not be tied up when traveling.
So what do you DO with these animals?
Alpacas are raised for their soft and luxurious fleece (fiber). Each shearing produces roughly five to ten pounds of fleece per animal, per year. This fleece, often compared to cashmere, can be turned into a wide array of products from yarn and apparel to tapestries and blankets. The fleece itself is recognized globally for its fineness, softness, light weight, durability, excellent thermal qualities, and luster.
There are a number of business models that alpaca farmers have developed:
Breeding and selling seedstock: This requires excellent genetics and sound breeding programs that will result in breeding quality animals that can then be sold to new and existing alpaca farms.
Fiber-focused breeding programs: This model focuses on breeding and raising alpacas that can produce high quality fleece that can then be sold or processed into end product.
Artisans: Some alpaca farmers use the fleece to produce products by hand, through spinning, weaving, or knitting. They may sell this work either on their farm, in retail stores, or online.
Agritourism: Various forms of agritourism have been successful for alpaca farmers, including overnight stays, day trips and tours, and special event venues. Most include an educational component to teach visitors about alpacas, their fiber, and potential for alpaca farming.
Alpaca owners are encouraged to develop a business plan and revise it regularly.
What about the fleece?
Finer grades of alpaca fleece are believed to be hypo-allergenic, meaning it is less likely to cause irritation from allergen particles. Unlike sheep’s wool, alpaca fleece contains no lanolin and is therefore ready to spin after only nominal cleaning. Prized for its unique silky feel and superb "handle," alpaca fleece is highly sought-after by both cottage-industry artists (hand spinners, knitters, weavers, etc.) as well as the commercial fashion industry.
Alpaca fleece has a variety of natural colors, making it very desirable. Sixteen colors are officially recognized (white; beige; and shades of fawn, brown, black, and grey) with many additional subtle shades and hues. White, light fawn, and light grey can be easily dyed to offer a rainbow of colors for the fiber artist. Combining alpaca fleece with other fine fibers such as merino wool, cashmere, mohair, silk, or angora can produce incredibly interesting blends.
Do I need to purchase a registered alpaca?
Simple answer—yes. Anytime you are investing money, you need to take all the necessary steps to help ensure that your investment maintains its value. Registered alpacas do just that.
Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. (AOA) is the largest alpaca pedigree registry in the world. While AOA provides services throughout the world, they mainly provide pedigree registration and member services in the United States and Canada. AOA is one of the few livestock registries that requires every animal to be DNA-validated with its parents before registration. As a result, people prefer AOA-registered alpacas.
Are there organized exhibitions and competitions for alpacas?
Yes, there are many alpaca shows held throughout North America where owners can showcase their animals and fleeces. Alpaca Owners Association, Inc. (AOA) certifies regional shows and fairs all over the United States. AOA administers the show rules, trains the judges, and offers other assistance to these certified shows. AOA also hosts the National Halter and Fleece Shows each year.
Can I keep alpacas with other livestock?
Alpacas can live with other livestock provided the following points are considered. First, is there any physical danger living with other livestock? Second, Is there any emotional or physical stress that could result as a consequence of living with other livestock. And third, are there shared parasites and/or illnesses between alpacas and other livestock?
Do people eat alpacas?
Alpaca meat can be safe to eat provided the animal has been withheld from medications per official guidelines and veterinary advice. Alpaca meat is not considered a primary product market primarily due to economic factors. It is most common in South America. The USDA does not yet have guidelines for the processing of alpaca.
How much does an alpaca cost?
Registered alpacas range in price from several hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. The price is affected by animal quality and genetic desirability, traits which are maintained in the AOA Registry Database.