Alpaca Anatomy & Breed Standards

Currently, the Suri Network is the only organization to implement a breed standard for an alpaca. There are ideals and suggestions but nothing as formal as the Suri Network Breed Standard. The purpose of the Suri Network is to preserve the extremely rare Suri Alpaca phenotype. To learn more visit  Suri Network Herd Improvement Program

Alpaca Anatomy:  The Feet

Alpaca feet are unlike hooves of horses, cattle, sheep or goats. Their feet have unique structure which enables them to be very sure-footed and cause minimal damage to the environment.

Each foot is made up of two toes which have a toenail and pad. The toenails extend off the front of each toe and curve to point towards the ground. The toenails will need to be trimmed occasionally if the alpaca does not wear them down naturally.

Most of the bottom surface of the foot is composed of the pad. The pad is very similar to a dog’s pad. The alpaca’s pad is larger and not quite as rough as a dog’s. This pad enables alpacas to have more sensation and better contact with the ground than any animal with hooves, thus making them more sure-footed. Since the pad is softer than a hoof, alpacas cause much less damage to the environment. It will take an alpaca much longer to wear a path than a horse, cow, sheep or goat.

Alpaca Anatomy:  The Teeth

Alpacas, llamas and other camelids have deciduous (baby teeth which fall out) and permanent teeth just like any other species. How many of each type varies with each species.
Alpacas have three pairs of deciduous incisors (front teeth) on the bottom and one pair on the top. The incisors on the top are further back in the mouth than the bottom incisors and look more like canine teeth than incisors. This makes up one of the pairs of upper fighting teeth. Full term crias should have all three pairs of lower incisors at the time of birth. The deciduous incisors fall out and are replaced by permanent incisors at certain ages which helps to age the llama by its teeth. The first pair of incisors (the two close together in the middle) will fall out between 2 and 2.5 years old. The second pair (the next two over from the center) will fall out between 2.5 and 3.5 years old. The third pair will fall out anywhere between 3 and 6 years old.

Alpacas have one pair of canine teeth on the bottom and one pair of canine teeth on the top. Only about 5% of males have deciduous canines and the permanent canines begin coming in by 2 to 3.5 years old. All four canine teeth are present in males , but may or may not be present in females. These are the other two pairs of fighting teeth. Males have a total of three pairs of fighting teeth (two pairs of canines and one pair of incisors which look like canines). The fighting teeth are very sharp and angled towards the back of the mouth. In the wild, these teeth are used to severely or mortally wound an opponent by cutting the jugular vein or the testicles. These teeth should be removed to prevent males from injuring each other during playing and fighting and to prevent males from injuring females during breeding. Some males will grab the ears of females with their mouth while breeding. This can result in cuts and scars on the female.

Alpaca Anatomy:  The digestive system

The alpaca digestive system is unique. An alpaca is not a true ruminant because they have only one stomach with three compartments. True ruminants have 4 compartments.

Alpacas chew their food only enough to mix their food with saliva to lubricate the food and help it pass down the esophagus. Kinda like a hungry teenage boy. This food bolus slides its way down to compartment one (C-1) of the alpacas stomach (not sure how many compartments a teenage boy has, but to some it seems like 20).

Compartment one of the alpaca digestive system is where the fermentation process starts. Water and nutrients are, also, absorbed in compartment one of an alpaca’s stomach.

Your alpaca will regurgitate its food and chew some more…up to 75 times (hopefully your teenager doesn’t do this). You may see an alpaca bringing up its cud. A bubble-like lump will move up its neck.

Alpacas chew their food in a figure eight motion. Once the alpaca has finished chewing, it will swallow the food, passing it into the other compartments of the stomach. The alpaca will then bring up more food to chew and continue this process.

What’s important in the alpaca digestive system is the microbe population in C-1 for fermentation to take place. The microbes need your alpaca and your alpaca needs these microbes to function properly. If you upset the balance of this population, you will cause your alpaca to become compromised. You must be very careful and go slowly with any changes you make to an alpacas diet.

In compartment two (C-2), your alpaca further ferments his food.

In the first part of compartment three (C-3), your alpaca absorbs water and nutrients. The far end of the third compartment secrets acids to digest his food. This is where ulcers can form in your alpaca if he is stressed. The PH of your alpacas stomach is fairly neutral in C-1 & C-2. It is very acidic in C-3.

The microbes in C-1 & C-2 are digested in C-3 and provide protein for your alpaca. This is an important source of amino acids for your alpaca.

The nitrogen balance in your alpaca’s stomach is very important, too. Your alpaca recycles urea in the stomach so that the microbes can synthesize the protein your alpaca needs.

Without going into too much anatomy and physiology, you can see how important it is to keep your alpacas digestive system in balance. Your alpaca needs his microorganisms to break down cellulose, urea, and protein. The microbial byproducts provide your alpaca with fatty acids for energy.

What does all this mean? If you are taking your alpaca to a show or another farm, provide him with food he is used to eating. You can slowly add new feed if you must get him on some other food. Every year when we buy our hay here at NRMA, we make sure we have left over hay that our alpacas have been eating so we can add the new hay slowly.

If your alpacas are going to be in a stressful situation, it’s very important not to change their feed. It can be helpful to add probiotics to get them through a stressful situation, too.

As we said before, the alpaca digestive system is unique. Now you are more aware of why it is important to feed your alpaca quality food that provides the microbial population needed to keep your alpaca’s stomach working correctly. A healthy, balanced microbial population in the stomach is a healthy alpaca.