95% of alpaca births happen without any issues and require no human intervention. It's an important thing to remember as you sit in the barn worrying about an alpaca in labour. There are specific guidelines established to help you decide when assistance might be required - and just what kind of assistance that might be - but that's not what this post is about. You can go HERE to read about that.
This is a story about Baby L.
Last summer was a tough one for alpaca births in this area. The early and extreme heat caught both humans and animals unaware, and we had a few births complicated by bad positioning and heat stress that required some help. When Miss L's labour went overtime and she seemed no closer to delivering, a quick check revealed that Baby L was trying to come into this world shoulders first. With the Vet on the way, I used my human midwife skills to try and rotate the cria and managed to get him partially turned. The Vet and I worked for an additional 45 minutes rotating and finally pulling out a very shaky but otherwise okay baby boy. Poor Miss L had a very rough delivery, and since baby was sitting up and okay we worked on making mom more comfortable.
Baby L was adorable and as mom recovered from the initial shock of the traumatic birth she nuzzled her wee boy and encouraged him to stand. When crias first stand up it's kind of like that scene from Bambi - they are all wobbly and it takes some practice for them to get used to their legs. As Baby L stood up and tried his first few steps I knew immediately this was different - something was very wrong.
His legs appeared to pull to one side - front and back. The more he tried to walk the worse it got. I was beside myself. I don't get like that often. Was it nerve damage? A stroke? I had no idea. I picked him up and held him as tears rolled down my face. His mom had laboured so hard and I was still covered in her blood. After working so hard to be born it was heartbreaking that Baby L's struggles weren't over yet. We called the Vet back.
In horses they call it "windswept legs" and it's usually the result of a bad position in utero. Mild cases can resolve with a few simple measures and time. Baby L had both front and back legs affected - in opposite directions. One of his rear legs could not touch the ground because it stuck out at the hip.
The vet had never seen this in alpacas, but a horse so badly affected would have limited options. The possibility that Baby L would never use his legs and the difficult choices that would bring was never far from our minds. Calls were made to the Vet school and slowly a treatment plan came together. Using a combination of activity restriction, soft splinting and passive gentle stretching we would try to support the delicate growth plates in the knee and stretch the tendons and ligaments to allow more normal positioning. He had worked so hard to be born, we figured we owed it to him to give him the best chance at a normal alpaca life. Plus, he was cute as all get out.
We kept him with mom and his grandmother in a small area in the barn where they could see other alpacas but couldn't run with them. I felt bad having to separate him from the other new crias, but I knew he would try to keep up with them and potentially crush the bones in his leg. Every morning and every night I massaged his legs and gently bent them into shape. After 3 days I would use soft gauze and foam to softly splint his legs into position each night, and remove the splints in the morning to let him strengthen his tendons. By the end of the first week all four feet could touch the ground at the same time.
Our Vet team made many follow up visits, and while some were dubious about our therapy regime, it was clear that Baby L was growing stronger and getting better. It took many weeks of careful monitoring and care before we knew for sure his legs would be able to support his growing weight. I started him on an enhanced nutrition program to make sure he had the minerals he would need to heal as well as make sure his weight gain was slow and steady. His mom seemed to know we were trying to help and she was very good about letting us work with Baby L.
Nearly a year has gone by and the days of watching and worrying seem like a distant memory. Baby L is a big strapping (almost) yearling who runs and jumps with his buddies and shows no sign of any angular limb deformity. He has a sweet disposition, luscious fibre, and he's very tolerant of the humans that occasionally give him the once over. A year ago I was hopeful that someday Baby L would be able to support his own weight and walk well enough to live a normal life. After such a rough start, I wasn't sure we could expect much more than that.
Today I know better. Baby L has taught me that will to live and determination to overcome obstacles are not just human qualities. This little guy fought hard to stand, move, walk, run and play like the other crias. The least we could do was join the fight.
Just after shearing here is Baby L today:
**I've included only the mildest, least graphic, photos here. Photos do not show the extent of the original deformity, but hopefully convey the general idea in case others are looking for info on the condition in alpacas. Please contact me for more details.