Continuing on from the previous blog on the three most important alpaca husbandry 'must know', is the dangers of facial eczema. But before we get into this, I would like to make an additional comment to my previous blog about poisonous plants, that I over looked in mentioning, which I feel is important to highlight.
I was talking about the removal of poisonous leaves to prevent them from blowing back into paddocks. Our vet also informed us of the dangers of burning the leaves to eradicate them, however even burning rhododendron/azalea leaves; the smoke will contain the toxins from within the leaves. This may still cause irreversible fatal slowing of the heart in both alpacas and humans. This is worth remembering folks!
Today I would like to tell you about our experience with this awful disease known as facial eczema (FE). Alpaca are extremely sensitive to this disease, more so than cattle, sheep, deer, and goats. The North Island is particularly susceptible, because of our moist warm summer and autumn conditions, which favours, the fungus, Pithomyces chartarum, and it loves to grow in the dead litter at the base of pasture.
The fungus contains spores that contain a chemical known as sporidesmin, which is the toxin that causes FE. When alpaca consume pasture with dead litter, or eat pasture that is very low to the ground, and the conditions are rife for FE, the spores are taken into the stomach where they are broken down. The toxin is absorbed into the venous bloodstream, and travels to the liver, where to cut short the more comprehensive explanation, the toxin undergoes a transformation into what most of us understand as free radicals,. It is these free radicals that cause necrosis (death) of liver cells and the biliary system within the liver.
The damage caused to the liver, then inhibits ability to process normal toxins, which in turn exacerbates the disease process of FE. Now that you have some back ground knowledge, (remember I said in my last blog that “knowledge is the key to everything”), let me share our own personal unfortunate experience of this dreadful disease.
The symptoms of EF are:
3) Skin swelling, crusting and oozing
4) Decreased production/growth rates
The most common sign is just simply death, long before you note any of the above signs! This indeed was scary and unsettling for us. Just how would we know if the signs where not clear to us. We were relatively new farmers?
Our very first baby alpaca, born on our property, was to Savannah, our gorgeous brown female, who has a beautiful nature (when not pregnant, that’s another story!), who gave birth to a cria (baby alpaca) in the September, about 20 months after Savannah arrived here. We named the baby boy McCullough, after my hubby’s Scottish Gt Grandmother’s family name, and in keeping with the theme of our Celtic name of our property - Lochanside. McCullough was a beautiful boy, same colour as his mum, and with a lovely nature.
All went well with mother and son, until McCullough was almost 7 months old. It was mid April, and we were counting our blessings that we (thought), had made it through a second summer with no FE problems. However one morning we went out to feed and water the animals, and we noted that Mac, as we called him, had running eyes. Hubby called the vet, and it was thought that Mac had a possible eye infection due to the flies from our neighbouring farm, constantly settling on the faces of our alpacas.
The vet prescribed polytears, a soothing eye drop solution, but 36 hours later, it was not showing any signs of effectiveness, but rather the eyes where now showing signs of swelling and his right ear around his ear tag was crusty. We called the vet to come out. Blood tests were taken to check Mac’s liver function; an injection of metabolase was administrated along with, ketasol drench and Mandersons Mix. The vet suspected FE. Things did not look good.
The results of the blood tests indicated that Mac’s liver function result was indeed sky high. Normal levels of GGT (gamma glutamyl transferase) an enzyme, should be 5-29umol/lt. Mac’s showed 2366 umol/lt! GGT is released by the liver and biliary cells, when they are damaged. Would he recover? What had we done? Why didn’t we recognise the signs of FE much earlier? You beat yourself up about this, but I go back to what Dr Geoff Neal of the Manawatu Veterinary Service states, ‘Often the first symptom of facial eczema in alpaca is sudden death’. (Quote taken from NZ Alpaca Association, Members information pack).
Alpaca being prey animals in their original environment in the Mountains of South America and at the bottom of the food chain, mask illness to avoid being noted by predators i.e. mountain lions, as sick or weakly animals that put them at risk of being hunted and eaten.
It was indeed too late to save Mr McCullough; the damage to his liver had already been done. We found him the next morning still warm, but no longer with us. His mother and his aunties sniffed him and seemed to know, that he had gone.
FE is a cruel disease, and sometimes, no matter what you do to try to prevent the disease, it just happens. Several other alpaca farmers with large herds also had animal’s succumb to the disease. The spore counts had been really high that summer and well into the late autumn.
The key preventative measures to take for FE are as follows:
1) Monitoring your environment is the first step towards prevention, so having access to the weekly spore counts that our local veterinary service supplies to us, is a essential service. These are great indicators; I say indicators because as yet the exact safe level of spore exposure for alpaca is not known.
2) Avoid dead litter in paddocks. This means do not top the grass in paddocks, as the spores grow on the dead litter created through topping. Drought conditions are also of concern as grass dies of and the spores grow on this.
3) Feed alpaca zinc containing pellets from the 1st of January for approximately 100days at the appropriate dose for weight of alpaca, about ¾ of a cup. This can be very difficult with cria, as in our experience, they will not eat pellets until around 10-12 months of age. However, if the cria is still attending the ‘milk bar’, then mums milk will contain some zinc. Zinc is a bitter tasting mineral, so we start the season off with mixing a small amount of zinc pellets with other very tasty pallets. The grandchildren and visitors love the opportunity to feed them.
It was with sadness that we buried Mr McCullough near to another alpaca (yet another story) that had died prior to his birth.
The next blog will look at the 3rd important piece of alpaca husbandry we were advised to know the day we took ownership of our 3 alpacas.
To be continued….
Please NOTE: This blog is about our personal experiences of alpacas farming. It does not replace the advice you should always seek from a qualified vet or the NZ Alpaca Association.