Information and advice from the RVC Farm Animal Clinical Centre on foot health and management in alpacas.

Foot health in alpacas in the UK is generally easy to manage with some straightforward, but important steps.

Fortunately, and unlike other ruminant species, alpacas do not appear to be prone to some of the harder to manage contagious foot diseases, such as foot rot in sheep, which can cause major outbreaks of lameness across a flock.

Regular observation

The most important step in keeping alpacas feet healthy is regular observation and foot trimming.

Alpacas should be checked daily for lameness, simply by walking through the paddock and observing them walking about.

If any animal is seen to be lame it should be brought in to an area for closer examination and checked from its foot upwards, e.g. for a foreign body between the digits; if no obvious reason for the lameness is seen or the reason looks serious, veterinary attention should be sought.

Foot inspection and trimming

Inspection of the feet should be conducted every 2-3 weeks.

Animals, especially those kept on soft ground will need to have their nails trimmed regularly to prevent overgrowth.

Alpacas have 2 digits on each foot, with a soft pad leading to a nail. The nail should be trimmed back so that it is level with the soft pad on a weight bearing surface.

This is best done with a pair of lamb foot rot shears, with straight edged blades. Each leg is gently lifted in turn and the nail should be trimmed by going down each side of the nail first, and then carefully across the toe, if the toe is very long.

close up of an alpaca's foot being trimmed
The straight edged sheep foot trimmers are used, initially down each side of the nail, flat, or level with the pad

Do not trim the end of the toe nail back too far as it will bleed and cause the animal to be sore, as there is bone under that part (see diagram below).

Some alpacas seem to suffer from a ‘screw claw’ defect or toe nail abnormality which causes the nail to curve under.

From research carried out, this does appear to mainly affect white huacaya alpacas, although has been seen in others too. These animals will require more regular trimming and attention due to improper wear patterns and may have a propensity to develop lameness as a result if not appropriately managed.

If you are unsure how to trim these and balance the foot, ask your vet or an experienced owner to show you how.

alpaca foot with distorted nail
The screw claw defect which is common and requires regular attention and trimming
line drawing of the bone structure of an alpaca foot
Diagram illustrating the foot, showing the distal phalanx (bone) sitting just within the start of the nail

Mange

The most common form of skin disease we see in the UK affecting alpaca’s feet and lower limbs is mange, caused by a mite parasite.

Alpaca's foot with inflamed skin
Inflamed skin around the feet of an animal infected with chorioptic mange

Both sarcoptic and chorioptic mange (caused by the Sarcoptes and Chorioptes mite respectively) can cause skin irritation around the feet, although chorioptic is more likely to affect the skin in the interdigital area between the toes and the back of the heel.

Sarcoptic tends to cause more itchiness and be more irritating to the animal than chorioptic.

Both can be treated and veterinary advice should be taken, especially if the alpaca is itchy, or the skin is reddened and sore.

Treatment may consist of injections every week for several weeks to kill the adult stages of the parasite and local skin treatments to help heal the skin and kill the superficial mites. Chorioptic mites unfortunately tend to be resistant to injectable treatments and require bathing and multiple skin treatments instead. If the skin is thought to be secondarily infected with a bacterial infection, an antibiotic may be prescribed also.

Foot rot

Whilst most alpacas tend to be resistant to the foot rot type lesions and diseases, commonly seen in sheep, some individuals may still be affected, especially if they are kept in wet conditions.

This can be prevented by avoiding use of particularly wet pastures where possible at certain times of year, or improving drainage to the pasture, and not overstocking of pastures, or feeding in poached areas where the ground is wet and muddy. This can set up a bacterial infection of the interdigital skin (skin between the toes), called bacterial ulcerative dermatitis, typically caused by a bacteria called Fusobacterium necrophorum, an anaerobic bacteria which lives in wet conditions where the air cannot penetrate.

The area tends to smell malodorous and the skin appears ulcerated. This can cause mild lameness and require treating by cleaning the area, keeping the feet dry and antibiotics and disinfectants.

ulceration on underside of alpaca foot
Pads of an alpaca suffering from ulcerative pododermatitis with underrun sole

Alpacas can also rarely get a similar disease, called ulcerative pododermatitis, which affects the soft pads and causes erosions and punctate lesions, with parts of the pads missing or underrun and will become lame.

This is also treated by cleaning up and debriding the area, keeping the feet dry and clean and use of local antibiotics and disinfectants. The severe widespread flock problems seen in sheep with this bacterial infection where it is highly contagious, does not seem to occur in alpacas, where instead it is usually individuals affected and the lameness is milder, unless the underlying bony structures of the foot are affected.

More recently, a class of bacteria called Treponemes have been found responsible for causing widespread, infectious and severe lameness in both cattle and sheep, playing a causal role in digital dermatitis. To my knowledge no evidence of this has been found to date in any camelid species.

Conclusion

In conclusion, with regular attention and appropriate foot trimming, it is easy to maintain good foot health in alpacas, especially compared to other domesticated livestock species.

Do seek advice from an experienced owner or vet if you need help foot trimming, as it is a vital part of routine herd health management.

Sore or lame animals, are a welfare concern and will not feed as well, may lose weight and struggle to keep up with their peers.


Dr Alex McSloy wrote an article on this subject for Alpaca Magazine, which is produced by the British Alpaca Society. This Fact File includes the information submitted to the magazine.

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