The Alpaca Birthing Process
I love the cria, even from the very beginning on the day they are born. With hundreds of cria having been born on our farm over the years, I get excited about every one. Most of the time, alpacas give birth between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the day. We have had a few outliners, but not many. Most of them also have easy births with natural progression from going into labour to becoming a proud mom. However, there are times when we have helped out because things were not quite right – events were not progressing, we did not see a head or some other indicator of needing to assist in the alpaca birth.
I took a neo-natal course years ago at an AOBA convention and have had hundreds of experiences since. I definitely encourage you to attend a course if possible to give you an introduction to this process.
Keep individual mating/birthing records for each female.
We record all breedings and spit-testing of our females, so we have a very good idea of when a baby is due. We gauge this date approximately 355 after the last breeding. Of course, this is not exact…much like a humans “9 months” is rarely on target. We have had some ladies go over a year.
We did find many ladies were consistent – consistently 7 days over or 3 weeks early or right on time, so this will be helpful in increasing the odds that you are around for the birth from that particular alpaca dam.
Keep your soon-to-be-mothers where you can see them.
Some farms separate their soon-to-be mothers away from the rest of the herd. We feel this increases the stress for them. We let the entire female alpaca herd into the pasture near the house so we are able to see them at any given time. Some will walk away from the herd and want to be alone when going into labor. Others seek out particular family members (their moms) and/ or friends for support when they start to go into contractions.
A female can be in labour for hours prior to you noticing her in labour. One of the few indicators is that her outside genitalia begins to swell as it gets ready for the baby. The mom usually starts to lie down and then get up, repeatedly going over to the manure pile but not going to the bathroom. At this point, the baby is in the birthing canal and ready to come out.
Pre-pack your birthing kit to grab in a hurry.
By now, I am out near the mother watching the progress. I have our baby kit in hand – a red filing box where I have stashed my towels, cria coat, Benedine, stethoscope and other items which I may need. This kit also has the vet’s phone number just in case.
Here it comes!
As the baby progresses, you will first see a blackish baseball sized mass forming at the vaginal opening. This is the birthing sack. We usually tear this sack and the water comes out. You should see the nose at this point. This allows the baby to receive oxygen in case the umbilical cord becomes detached from the mom and stops the oxygen flow.
Ensure the mucus covering the face is cleared away from the nose and mouth so the cria can breathe air into its lungs.
15 minute rule.
A birthing alpaca should make progress at least every 15 minutes. She may rest, and she may even eat as she pauses in the birthing process. What you want to see is some form of progress every 15 minutes, such as seeing one or both legs or the head coming out.
The head usually pops out first. But one or two legs can come out first. They can be arranged in any direction, seemingly like a contortionist with one leg over the head and the other under the chin.Once the head is fully out, the baby starts to breathe air, sometimes gasping and shaking its head, which is good.
If there is no progress, assess what you can do, and alert your vet.
Get cria into correct position.
As long as you have two legs and a head, the birth should progress normally. You may need to sort the legs out so there is one either side of the head.
Position the head so it dangles down between the legs. This makes the shoulders narrower to birth.
(Try it yourself, with your arms and head.) The photo on the right shows perfect positioning for the birth to progress.
Rotate the cria.
If the cria seems to be tightly wedged, remember that the pelvis is oval in shape, not circular. Sometimes it is as easy as angling the alpaca to the left or right so it can go through the pelvis. Slightly rotate the cria so its shoulders are in the widest part of the pelvis, which is on the diagonal. (About 10 to 4, using a clock face analogy.)
Legs but no head?
The challenge when the head is missing, is whether you have front legs or back legs. If you have back legs, you have a breech baby. Call the vet immediately. But if they are front legs, you must have the head before you can commence to pull the cria out if you feel you must. We encourage you not to pull on the cria unless absolutely necessary. Tearing the delicate internal issue can cause irreversible damage to the mother.
In our recent experience with a “missing head”, my first step was to check which way the limbs bent. The first two joints of the front legs bend in the same direction, forming a U shape. By contrast, the first two joints of the back legs bend in opposite directions, forming a Z shape. (see diagram)
If it is front legs, as we had, you will then have to go inside to get the head to come forward and out. This is where you need your neo-natal course experience, practicing on dead cria. Or your friendly vet. Know your limits. Put a glove on, lube both sides of the hand and gently go into assess the position. Occasionally a foot will be back, the head will be stuck or some other position needs to be altered. We had one cria that was upside down with her teeth stuck on the mother’s pelvis! Gently rearrange, but do what you need to do as quickly as possible.
Know when to call the vet.
Know your limits. Assess the situation, and call the vet once you are unsure or you are unable to progress the birth. For our “missing head” case above it took an epidural from the vet and much patience to extract the head of a cria which kept pulling its neck back and facing the rear, rather than fronting the cold, wet, (and increasingly bloodied) world outside.
After the birth
I apply iodine as soon as possible to guard against infection getting in via the cria's navel. Very occasionally a cord needs clamping to stop excess bleeding. We usually towel dry the cria. They wiggle and squirm, getting their blood and legs moving.
Over the years we have become adept at guessing a cria's weight, but weighing the cria within a few hours of birth will assist you in making decisions about its health and management. It should gain about ½ pound of weight each day.
Also, once the placenta is passed, the milk should begin to flow. You may need to gently ease out the waxy plugs in the nipples to get the milk started.
At this stage take a look at the dam's rear end too - look for splits and tears that may need cleaning to avoid infection.
Ensure the placenta is passed.
In the usual course of events, the placenta will be passed within a couple of hours. Ideally, stay around until the placenta is passed.
Spread the placenta out on the ground and check that it is all there. It should have two tips (horns).
It is abnormal for the placenta not to be passed within 6 hours. After 12 hours, action is called for – usually the vet with an injection to encourage it to be passed. Retained placental membranes can cause infection in the dam very quickly, and it can be fatal. However, we had had one mother that never passed her placenta. After about 2 weeks, it slowly sloughed out of the mother. Not a favorable way to go, but at least it wasn’t lethal.
The baby should try to stand in about 15-30 minutes. Be sure it does not get too cold from a breezy or cloudy day. A newborn's temperature should range from 100-102 F.
Remember, most births are natural! If you are lucky enough to catch that brief moment when a female gives birth herself, relax and enjoy it. It will be over so quickly, you’ll wonder why you were concerned at the event happening.
Bottle of water-based, sterile, lubrication
Plastic Gloves, both short and full arm length
Iodine – preferably at least 2.5% solution, liquid, or a spray bottle
Vet wrap to wrap the dam's tail out of the way
Umbilical cord clamp - or clothes peg
Old towels if the cria needs to be rubbed dry and warm
Scales – bathroom ones, or hanging cria scales
Portable phone and vet's phone number
Bucket and plastic garbage bag for placenta collection