Dealing With Orphans

Jan 1, 2011 | Llama Writing

A perfect pair in the evening – a mother and a beautiful ten-day-old female cria. First thing the next morning, a tragedy and a huge problem – a dead mother and a very hungry cria. Some hard times followed. It took several weeks to talk the cria out of following her mother. At times she was too weak to walk and simply lay in a corner of the living room. At one point she decided that our Giant Schnauzer might be her new mama and, while they looked pretty cute snuggled up with each other beside the couch, this didn’t go a long way toward solving the feeding problem. So, in the hope that you’ll never need them, I offer you a few handy hints from what I learned that summer:


1. Check the IgG levels so you know what you’re dealing with. I know it costs money and your vet doesn’t have a test on hand, but get it done anyway, it’s worth the trouble.

2. Learn what her stomach is supposed to feel like. If her tummy is full when you haven’t fed her in several hours, she’s producing gas – she’s getting in trouble. Pumping out her stomach isn’t difficult, doesn’t require more than one person once you know what you’re doing, and isn’t even particularly icky. Get your vet to show you how.

3. Don’t put off plasma transfers if the baby isn’t doing well. AMAZING recoveries are possible. And if you’re not getting enough liquid AND nutrition into the cria, get an IV going and get her hydrated and feeling better.


4. Make the cria lie down if you’re having trouble getting her to take the bottle – then only the NECK will be snaking around trying to get away, and not the legs as well. If you’re having trouble folding up her legs and getting her to lie down, stand behind her with her hips against your legs. Put your arms/hands around her chest, pick her up, tip her head up and her tail down, and sit her down on her tail with her back legs out in front of her. Sit down yourself and wrap your legs around her belly, above her back legs and below her front legs. Now she’s trapped and your hands can manage her head and the bottle. See #21

5. Don’t neglect exercise – babies need exercise to keep the bowels moving properly, and to help them maintain an interest in life. If you live on a farm and are raising a cria under a month old, don’t worry about a leash. If you’re the one doing the feeding, it’s the baby’s job to stick with you. If you live in the city, maybe you should keep your llama on a leash!

6. Don’t try to put a halter on the little girl. Go to the nearest pet shop (or WalMart) and get a dog harness of an appropriate size. Try not to get the kind with a single cinch strap and a breast band – look for the ones that have one part going around the neck like the collar and the other part a cinch around the ribs. They are cheap and indispensable for allowing you to move the cria around, attach a leash to if you need one, pick her up, lay her down – they are adjustable, too, and cause the cria considerably less hysteria than a halter if she isn’t halter trained yet.

7. WEIGH THE BABY AT LEAST ONCE A DAY. Take your bathroom scales out to the barn if you have to. This is a hard part – don’t worry if the cria isn’t gaining weight in the beginning. I was frantic because she stayed the same weight for nearly 3 weeks, but several knowledgeable people said not to worry about it, just make sure she isn’t LOSING weight. Keep her healthy and strong and she can make up the weight later. And don’t be looking for that elusive pound-a-day – after 10 days on the goat, she was roaring along at about a pound every 4 days – BUT she was healthy and bright and energetic and enthusiastic. You can’t tell without a scale whether a cria is gaining weight or not. They can feel heavy and healthy and remain the same weight for apparently ever.


8. If you are going to tube feed, get real instructions and a demonstration from your vet, and then practise doing it yourself with your vet watching. Tubing milk into the cria’s lungs will kill her right NOW.

9. Keep your skin out of the way. We went through the first part of the recovery on very hot days so I was wearing shorts and t-shirts. The baby kept nuzzling my hands and my elbows and the backs of my knees. The light bulb finally went on and I covered myself with a blanket – finally she found the bottle!

10. Rub the tummy vigorously between the umbilicus and the nipples – this causes the cria to think about eating, signaled by folding the tail up over the back.

11. Crias take a long time to nurse. An orphan pup will latch onto the bottle or onto a surrogate mother or onto your finger or your nose or your lip as if his life depended on it. Crias need to lip it a bit, and think about it, and taste it, and lip it some more before deciding to actually latch on and get down to business.

12. Don’t neglect exercise – sometimes to take a full meal, the cria will have to walk around for a few minutes after she drinks a bit – maybe to allow the milk to go from one stomach to the next to make room for a new batch.

13. If you have to force feed but aren’t up to tube-feeding yet, put the milk into the cria’s CHEEK, not down her throat. From the cheek, she has to swallow it. Down the throat, she might aspirate it into her lungs.

14. Don’t switch more than one thing at a time. If you’re going to try a different nipple, don’t change the formula. If you’re going to change the formula, don’t change the nipple. If you’re going to change the nipple, don’t change the bottle.

15. If feeding more often is just making the baby disinterested, try feeding LESS often. Every three hours is fine. More often than every two hours means the baby is never hungry and doesn’t need to bother nursing .

16. Take pains not to lose the sucking reflex. Give the cria every opportunity to suck. Sucking apparently puts the milk into the correct stomach, while tubing or force-feeding does not, AND if the baby decides that sucking is not necessary, you are not going to be able to find a surrogate mother, which means YOU are elected for the rest of the year.

17. We had NO luck adding stuff to milk to make it more tasty. Llamas like lots of things, but it’s tough convincing them of that. Honey, sugar, corn syrup – all produced a big loud BLECH! from the cria.

18. Be very careful of heating milk in the microwave. You can easily form pockets of very hot milk which could burn the baby. I heated it in hot water in a bowl in the sink.

19. Crias don’t suck the whole nipple into their mouths and look like they want to swallow the udder like a puppy. Crias latch on to the last quarter inch of nipple and look like they are about to fall off at any moment. That’s normal.

20. Milking goats need to be milked out twice a day. DO NOT neglect this. No hoof, no horse. No udder, no goat. I put the goat on the milking stand, let the baby nurse out as much as she wants, then I milk the goat, then I offer the baby whatever extra she wants from the bucket. Don’t offer to milk the goat for the baby BEFORE she nurses – remember the CRIA is supposed to do the milking! (I’ll get to the goat in a minute).

21. And if the baby WON’T take the bottle, you’ll have to force feed her. Don’t follow the cria around holding the bottle out. Don’t try to hold the cria’s head while her body bucks around and you try to put the nipple in her mouth. You need a) a chair, b) baby bottle with a black calf nipple on it, c) a helper the first few times. Take the cria over to the chair. Get ready to sit in the chair. With the cria facing AWAY from you, pick her up right off the ground so her back legs are dangling down by your feet and your arms are around her chest with her back held against your belly. Sit down on the edge of the chair. As you sit down, flip the cria’s back legs out in front of her so she winds up sitting on her tail just like you are, with her back legs in front of her. Wrap your legs around her waist, and cross your legs so you have a wrestling hold on her body with your legs. Use your knees to hold her ribcage in place. Use your left hand and arm to hold her head tight against your your body and point her nose up. Your left hand can open her mouth if you need to, by pushing in the sides of her face between her front teeth and her back teeth. Use your right hand to plug in the bottle. Use a slight in-and-out motion with the nipple to encourage sucking.


22. Remember colostrum. This is the first milk the baby gets in the first, say, 36 hours, which contains antibodies and all good stuff she needs from her mom. I ALWAYS milk some colostrum from heavy milkers, and put it in heavy freezer bags and freeze it. If you can’t locate any llama colostrum, at least go to the local feed store and buy some cow colostrum powder to give the baby. I’m not sure cow colostrum works on llamas, but at least I’d feel like I was TRYING to do the right thing…

23. There’s nothing wrong with plain old grocery-store full-strength homogenized cow’s milk if you can’t find anything else in a hurry. I’ve had really good luck with goat’s milk, but cow will do.

24. Crias hate goat milk, but they can learn. We started by trying to bottle feed goat milk – she was getting nothing, we had to force-feed, it was a mess. We switched to cow’s milk, and she grabbed it immediately. Then we decided to rent a goat, and we started putting a little bit more goat milk in the cow milk with every feeding – starting with a tablespoon of goat milk. When she was up to 3/4 goat and 1/4 cow, we went to straight goat milk.

25. Plain (not flavoured or low-fat) yogurt helps diarrhea. You can use up to 1/4 yogurt in the formula.

26. If the cria isn’t getting enough food, she needs more food, not more fat. They can’t digest too much fat. I thought adding some whipping cream would get her going better – I was wrong.

27. RENT A GOAT. Rented goats can be taken back when you’re done with them – a VERY positive feature. Surprisingly (to me at least), in spite of attracting flies, smelling like a goat, and pooping anywhere they please, goats are quite personable animals. And you’ll be able to put “able to milk goats” on your resume. We didn’t rent the goat until we had gotten rid of the diarrhea and had the baby up and walking and appearing healthy and nursing again. If we knew then what we know now, we would have rented the goat the first day. It took about a week for the goat to stop declaring “IN CASE ANYONE HASN’T NOTICED, IT IS 3 AM AND THERE ARE NO OTHER GOATS HERE!”, and it took 10 days for the goat to think the cria belonged to her and for the cria to realize that the goat didn’t need to be on the milking stand and I didn’t need to be holding her in order for her to nurse. After we got those items straightened out, the cria became less interested in meal times and started snacking throughout the day – a much more normal approach.

28. Neither count on nor rule out the idea that the cria will learn to bum snacks off other mothers if you have any. We left the cria and her goat alone for a week to get to know each other. After that we put them in with several other mothers and crias and several times I saw the orphan snacking off llama mamas. In the sheep world, orphans are called “bummers” because they sneak in from the back where mama can’t see them, or hide on the other side of the ewe’s actual lamb in order to bum a drink.