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Alpaca Info Library

What is an Alpaca?

The Alpaca (Vicugna pacos) is a domesticated species of South American camelid developed from the wild alpacas. It resembles a sheep in appearance, but is larger and has a long erect neck as well as coming in many colors, whereas sheep are generally bred to be white.

Alpacas are kept in herds that graze on the level heights of the Andes of Ecuador, southern Peru, northern Bolivia, and northern Chile at an altitude of 3500 to 5000 meters above sea-level, throughout the year. Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas, and unlike them are not used as beasts of burden but are valued only for their fiber. Alpacas only have fleece fibers, not woolen fibers, used for making knitted and woven items much as sheep's wool is. These items include: blankets, sweaters, hats, gloves, scarves, a wide variety of textiles and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, socks and coats in other parts of the world. The fiber comes in more than 52 natural colors as classified in Peru, 12 as classified in Australia and 22 as classified in America. Alpacas and llamas differ in that llamas have banana shaped ears and long tails and alpacas have straight ears and stubby tails. Aside from these differences, llamas in general are on average 1-2 feet taller, and bigger in proportion than alpacas.

In the textile industry, "alpaca" primarily refers to the hair of Peruvian alpaca, but more broadly it refers to a style of fabric originally made from alpaca hair but now often made from similar fibers, such as mohair, Icelandic sheep wool, or even high-quality English wool. In trade, distinctions are made between alpacas and the several styles of mohair and luster.


Frequently Asked Questions 

Q: Are alpacas easy to care for?


A: They are small and easy to maintain, rarely overeat and require no extraordinary care. They should have basic shelter for protection against heat and foul weather. They do not challenge fences. They simply need shearing, worming, and vaccinations.


Q: Are alpacas friendly to people?


A: YES!...Alpacas can learn to be very friendly to humans from close contact and training. Alpacas generally don't like being held and are particularly sensitive to being touched on the head. They are naturally curious and intelligent and if you let them approach you, rather than rush at them and expect an affectionate response, the interactions can be very rewarding.


Q: How do you take care of an alpaca?


A: Alpacas should be put on a schedule of routine, periodic vaccinations and worming medications. Most alpaca farmers provide a shelter from the winter storms and the summer sun. They need hay year-round that is normally supplemented with a grain and salt minerals.


Q: What do you do with an alpaca?


A: They provide an excellent investment opportunity and are the source of luxurious fiber. The fleece, comparable to cashmere, is known for it fineness, light weight, and luster. Alpaca textile products are recognized world-wide. Everyone should own a soft, warm alpaca sweater.


Q: What is special about alpaca fiber?


A: Alpaca fiber is of a very high quality, similar in fineness to that of angora rabbits and cashmere goats, but the fiber is hollow giving it insulating characteristics similar to the vacuum inside a thermos. This makes the extremely light and fine fiber also very warm. Unlike llama fiber, pure alpaca fiber is free from coarse guard hairs. The entire blanket fleece is usable in making fine garments.


Q: Can I have an alpaca as a pet?


A: Most alpacas make very good pets if they are treated well and the owners are realistic in their expectations. Like any livestock, the more handling they receive as youngsters, the quieter thy are as adults. Given time, most alpacas will eat out of your hand and training them to lead by a halter is a straightforward process.


It is possible to have a single alpaca, but it is not a pleasant existence for the animal. Alpacas are herd animals and are instinctively sociable, as are other domestic livestock. They obtain security and contentment from having at least one other alpaca for company.


They make excellent companion animals and are also show animals with high aesthetic appeal. They have lovable dispositions. Alpacas are easily trained to lead and are gentle enough to be handled by children.


For this reason, it is usually recommended that two alpacas is the desirable minimum.


Q: Are alpacas dangerous?


A: Absolutely not! They are safe and pleasant to be around. They do not bite or butt, and they do not have the teeth, horns, hooves , or claws to do serious injury.


Q: Are alpacas smart?


A: Yes, they are amazingly alert animals who quickly learn to halter and lead. They constantly communicate with each other through body posture, tail and ear movements, and a variety of sounds. The sound heard most often is a soft humming, a mild expression befitting a gentle animal.


Q: Alpacas spit,....don't they?


A: It is quite rare that alpacas spit at people. It is normally used as a pecking order to be expressed with other alpacas. If a human hit occurs, it is usually because the person has not read the signs properly when stepping between two squabbling alpacas.


Spitting is perhaps the least endearing feature of alpacas. It is one of the few defense mechanisms an alpaca has and is quite an effective deterrent. The material is basically regurgitated or recently chewed grass and it brushes off when dry. It does have a distinctive and somewhat offensive odor and it is best to avoid being a target.


Q: Do alpacas kick and bite?


A: When interacting with humans, kicking and biting is highly unusual. Alpacas are usually sensitive around the back legs and will instinctively kick backwards if they sense a threat from the rear.


Most alpacas do not kick at humans, but there are some alpacas that are prone to kicking. This is more evident in a pregnant female that wants to deter the advances of a male alpaca.


Fortunately, because the foot is a soft pad, injuries to humans are minimal. Most alpacas respond very well to back legs if they receive good handling as youngsters.


Alpacas that bite people are extremely rare and it is not a general problem. If it does occur it tends to be an attention seeking behavior by spoiled pets rather than an attack.


Q: Can I run alpacas with other livestock?


A: Alpacas can bond well with other types of animals. Naturally, alpacas and large aggressive dogs are not a good combination, but there are many cases of quite dogs mixing well with alpacas.


Individual alpacas have been very successfully run with sheep and goats to act as fox guards. The alpacas tend to bond with the foster herd and they are naturally aggressive toward foxes.


If running with different livestock, alpacas will pick up the internal parasites associated with other animals and should be put on the same worming regime.


Because of the risk of the alpacas being kicked, caution should be used if running them with cattle or horses.


Q: At what age do alpacas start breeding?


A: Females become sexually mature at around 12 to 18 months of age and once they reach 100 pounds in weight. Males can display sexual interest from a few weeks of age but are not sexually active or fertile until 18 months to 3 years of age.

(There will be individuals that fall outside this age range.)


Alpacas do not have a breeding season and provided they are receptive, females can be mated at any time of the year. Like rabbits and cats, female alpacas are "induced ovulators" which means it is the act of mating that causes them to ovulate.


Alpacas mate in the "cush" (prone) position and if a female is not receptive (already pregnant) she will refuse to sit down and probably spit at the male. This rejection response, known as a "spit-off," is used in the management of the female to regularly monitor the progress of her pregnancy.


Q: How long is gestation?


A: The average gestation period is 11.5 months, but pregnancies that go for over a year are not uncommon.


Births are generally trouble-free and most occur before the middle of the day. Cria should be 12-20 pounds at birth and most will be on their feet and nursing within 2 to 3 hours. The mothers are often very protective and the cria will stay with its mother until weaning at 5 to 6 months of age.


Females are usually re-mated 2 to 6 weeks after giving birth.


Q: Do alpacas ever have twins?


A: Twinning in alpacas is extremely rare (approximately 0.0001% of births) and should not form any part of a breeding plan.


Q: How much do alpacas cost?


A: There is a tremendous price range in the animals that has to do with sex, pedigree, and physical characteristics. Pet quality alpacas can be as little as several hundred dollars while award-winning herdsires have sold at auctions for close to $200,000. You will generally see prices for breeding quality female alpacas between $8,000 and $35,000.


At this stage of the industry's development, price is directly related to the individual breeding potential and the potential quality of the offspring.


For example, a gelding (castrated male) has no breeding potential and is therefore the cheapest alpaca to buy (around $500 to $1000). On the other hand, a high quality male with many good progeny on the ground has  a very high breeding potential and can be worth many thousands of dollars. He can also command a high income from the stud services he provides.


Female pricess are a reflection of quality, age, breeding history and to which stud male she is mated. Females can be worth anything from a few thousand dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.


Income from females is derived from selling the offspring. However, breeding plans should be made so that long term depreciation of the older breeders and increases in quality of offspring are taken into account.


Q: How do I get started if I want to breed alpacas?


A: There are a number of things to consider before launching into the breeding industry. It is best to talk to as many experienced breeders as possible. You will gain lots of useful information from people who have already done the legwork. If you are serious it is advisable to develop a business plan.


To be able to register your offspring you will need to become a member of the Alpaca Registry, Inc and apply for herd registration. The registry office can send you the appropriate forms. Join the Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association (AOBA).


Some people buy a couple of geldings to begin with and once they feel confident that alpacas really are extremely easy to manage, they take the next step to start a breeding herd. For most breeders, they simply want to get going as soon as possible and enjoy the experience as they learn along the way.