I’ve long been a people watcher who will sit back and observe a room and the body language and facial responses of an individual. Without realizing it, this has quickly been transferred to alpacas. Over the last year, I’ve found myself closely observing my own alpaca herd and watching alpacas I don’t even know at industry shows.
Just like people, if you stop and take a moment to watch and listen to your alpacas, you can learn a lot about them and their behavior.
Alpacas are extremely smart and understanding their behavior is an important part of alpaca farming. The happier your herd is, the easier time you’ll have breeding them, keeping them physically healthy, producing high-quality fiber, and selling the alpacas or products to others.
The more I personally interact with alpacas, the more I become highly annoyed with everything I read about understanding and managing alpaca behavior. The alpaca industry has not embraced the internet, so there is a lot of old and incorrect information online. This made it really hard for me to learn online and forced me to do trial and error so I could learn firsthand.
To make matters worse, if you spend time visiting alpaca farms and ask each breeder the same question, you’ll most likely receive different answers each and every time. We’ve been to six alpaca farms this year and everyone has different views and opinions on managing and raising alpacas. Some of the information we’ve been given has had slight variations, while other information has completely contradicted the best practices of another farm.
Today I’d like to walk through my experiences with alpaca behavior, what I’ve observed, and more importantly, what I’ve learned.
The Backstory on Our Herd
Before I talk about standard alpaca behavior, I’d like to review my history with our alpacas. I want to walk through their personalities and how these have shifted as time progressed. I think this is important because I want you to see that alpacas are each unique and they come with very different experiences and personalities.
Yes, they are livestock, but they are extremely smart livestock. Their genetics and their life experiences shape their personalities. As an alpaca farmer, you can shift that behavior in many different directions.
The Alpaca Divas
In January we acquired our first set of alpacas. We bought five from the Nelsen’s at Crystal Lake Alpaca Farm in Frankfort, Michigan. Four of these five alpacas arrived together and then we had to patiently wait for baby Adel to come once she was weaned from her mother.
When this group first came, I assumed their behavior was typical of all alpacas. Oh, how I was wrong. These alpacas were an example of alpaca behavior for this farm and this lineage out of Peru. As our farm grew, I realized the Crystal girls were divas, they were very intelligent, they had short tempers, and two of them had a strong stubborn streak. And with all those characteristics, I loved them all dearly.
The four adult alpacas were quick to spit at each other and had little tolerance for anyone in their personal space. Even mother Kalista and daughter Sienna offered little grace to each other when personal space and feeding came into play.
Ariana and Adel both stem from 5Peruvian Micay, who was a spitfire female alpaca from Peru. Micay is Ariana’s mother and Adel’s great-grandmother. Micay’s personality is strong and along with this strong personality comes a very intelligent alpaca. Micay’s ability to pass this on to her offspring is even stronger.
I was recently at an alpaca show and I could spot Ariana’s daughter (Micay’s granddaughter) from twenty feet away simply by seeing her demeanor and facial expressions. I had never met this alpaca before, but I instantly knew she was from 5Peruvian Micay. This instantly made me love her and want to bring her home.
Ariana was clearly the alpha alpaca and no one was going to unseat her and take this position from her. Kalista was always trying to move into her position, but she didn’t have the personality passed onto her from Micay so she was no match for Ariana.
Anastasia, another adult female, simply focused on food and growing her overweight self. She was super pleasant and sweet, but the bottom line was she cared about nothing else beyond her next meal.
All of this maneuvering produced disagreements and spitting.
I had my fill of this quickly and I would find myself doing manners training in the barn with the girls in the depth of February winter nights. Without even realizing it, I taught them the words “no ma’am” and my mom look. They learned my stern mom look meant to tone down the behavior and cease the spitting.
Flash forward ten months and the girls no longer spit at every whim. Ariana is still the alpha, but Kalista has given up the fight for dominance. Everyone is more tolerant of each other and they all know I am the alpha human mom. When I am in the barn, spitting is usually not present and if I give a look or a no ma’am they all quickly take note.
Ariana is still my favorite and we have a strong connection with each other. She keeps a keen eye on me as I do on her. She verbalizes to me when things are wrong and makes sure I am aware of something she deems important or of concern. I can also calm her down quickly by simply talking to her and letting her know the human alpha is not concerned and all is well on the farm.
And baby Adel? She has grown into her own and is now one year old. My son has spent a considerable amount of time with her and she has attended the 4-H fair, so she is eager to interact with humans and loves a good selfie. She is smart enough to know her limits. She still has her stubborn Micay streak, but she knows she is the alpaca and she is not above either Ariana or us humans. She’s lovable, yet sassy all in one.
Looking at the five girls, their personalities, and how they’ve changed over the last few months is a great example of nature vs. nurture. I will never be able to take out Micay’s spunk from Ariana or Adel, and honestly, I don’t want to either. But I can influence how they interact with us and our herd.
I’ll admit I never thought we’d come this far in these last few months.
The Alpaca Adoptions
Our next arrivals came from a small farm in Northern Michigan. The 4-H had called us and asked if we could adopt two alpacas that needed to be rehomed. We went to visit them on a cold winter day and we promptly said yes to the adoptions. Faith and Stormy arrived home a few days later.
Stormy was immediately happy, extremely friendly, and seemed to love her new situation and everyone around her. Faith was scared of her own shadow.
Neither had ever had a barn, so they opted to stay outside the first few weeks. It literally took a good month before Faith was comfortable being in the barn at night or being in the barn with humans.
As the weeks progressed, Stormy grew her love for us. She would dance around the pasture when she saw me approach and always run over to greet me. Faith would simply exist and maintained her distance.
I made Faith my special project for months and would slowly work on approaching her. She would not eat from a bucket or our hands, so I would go out in bitterly cold winds to open spaces to work with her on this task. Slowly and day by day, she shifted her behavior. First, she would eat out of a bucket outside, then my hand outside, and then my hand inside the barn.
Flash forward about nine months and Faith is just one of the herd. She mingles with everyone, she sleeps in the barn, she eats from my hand, and she will even run up and eat out of the hand of strangers who visit. And she does so with interest and happiness for the treats.
I would have never thought we would have influenced and modified her behavior in the way that we did. And honestly, all it really took was patience, some love, and allowing Faith to progress at her own pace.
The Chill Alpacas
Funny and Quirky RebaOur next alpaca purchase came from Loney’s Alpaca Junction in Lake City, Michigan. The owners of this farm are Bill and Gena Loney. They are the nicest and chilliest people you’ll meet in the alpaca industry. We soon found out their alpacas are just as chill.
We purchased Dolly, Reba, and Princess Aurora in the spring. We liked the look of all three and Dolly and Reba had Snowmass in their genetics, which was something we wanted. What we didn’t realize was the ladies had the same personality as Gena and Bill. All three are mellow and just plain go with the flow alpacas. Their behavior was just the opposite of the Crystal Divas and Micay’s offspring. This group made an excellent addition to our alpaca herd, because their behavior offset that of the Crystal alpacas. It produced a yin and yang and provided balance.
Dolly, Reba, and Princess Aurora are all now pregnant and they have shifted their personality slightly. Dolly has become even more chill and Reba has become spunkier. Calm little Reba will not quickly tell other alpacas how she feels.
While I didn’t need to shift any alpaca behavior with this group, I did want to make sure the chill alpacas didn’t feel overpowered by the diva alpacas. This meant I needed to reinforce their sense of security, without disrupting the group dynamic and the natural alpaca behavior that is set in place by the fact that these are livestock animals that have a herd mentality and a social hierarchy in place.
The PA Girls
Our last set of alpacas came from a farm in Pennsylvania. My husband discovered a couple who was looking to disperse their herd for retirement purposes. We purchased seven female alpacas from this farm and did so without actually meeting the alpacas in person.
The PA girls came with their own sense of hierarchy, personalities, and characteristics. Their alpaca behavior was securely in place and their group dynamic was very firm.
Vin was their matriarch and the group’s alpha alpaca, Bean and Avalon were the group’s lovers, Zula was the quirky one, Indie and Attie were the divas, and Ginger was the omega and a bit of an outcast.
You could immediately tell this was a whole different group and I suspected they would modify the behavior of our existing herd. And they did just that!
At arrival, I could not get Attie or her daughter Ginger to make eye contact with me or be physically anywhere close to me. Ginger has constantly talking and humming as if she was upset about something. I knew things would settle and that calm would eventually come with time. I also knew had to wait until they felt comfortable in their new home to truly see their personalities.
And they settled in, their alpaca behavior shifted. Attie now eagerly interacts and makes eye contact with me, while Ginger is warming more day by day. Ginger only hums when things are changed around her, and I can quickly settle her by talking one on one with her should she get upset about something.
Vin joined Ariana as an alpha alpaca, and so far, they tend to share this title in harmony.
Avalon is the new farm greeter, while Bean and Zula seek out attention and love from the humans.
Indie and Attie beat to their own drums, but both are becoming more and more social. Indie was actively seeking interaction with me this week and there was a noticeable difference in her level of comfort and happiness.
While that may not seem like a lot of change, they’ve only been on our farm for weeks. So, it is a lot of shifts in behavior in just a short amount of time. This tells me they trust us, feel comfortable with their new farm, and they’ve settled into the herd hierarchy.
This leaves me to Teddy and Levi. Teddy is Ariana’s son and Levi is Princess’ son. Both were born on our farm this summer.
Boys bring a whole different version of behavior and you have to worry about things you would not with females. From roughhousing around the paddock to wanting to mate the ladies, the boy alpacas are a handful. This changes the dynamic quickly and it requires segregation once the boys are weaned from their mothers. Teddy and Levi are just reaching this point.
The interesting thing is you can tell who comes from which mother and which farm. Teddy has Micay in his background, so he is a mini spitfire similar to Adel. He can quickly get into trouble, although he does listen to us humans. His spunky attitude will help make him an excellent herdsire if his fiber and conformation support it. Levi is just the opposite. Levi is completely laid back just like his mother and the rest of the alpacas from Loney’s farm.
I love our boys and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. They are fun and lovable all wrapped up in one. Boys bring a different vibe to the farm. They play fight and goof around like teenage humans, but they also leave out all the drama teenage girls can bring. They are just as lovable as the girls but come with a lot fewer disagreements. Just like the average teenage boy, they argue and then they quickly move on.
If you are thinking through the boy vs. girl debate, don’t discount alpaca boys. They make excellent fiber males, they offer a lot less drama, and they can be utterly loving and great companions.
There is no golden rule for managing alpaca behavior. You have to remember that alpacas are livestock and they have personality traits and actions associated with alpacas in general. Then you have to adapt this knowledge to the individual alpacas, their personalities, and their lineage.
Understanding the Nuances of Alpaca Behavior
Now that I’ve taken you through some recent experiences I’ve had with alpacas and their individual behavior, I’d like to talk about alpaca behavior in general. It’s all connected and it is important to understand all aspects of alpacas.
Livestock vs. Pet
Let’s start by reviewing alpacas and their usage. Alpacas and llamas have become very popular lately. This isn’t just in the United States, their popularity has been growing all around the world. As their exposure has grown, the confusion on their usage has grown as well. People assume they are pets, when in fact, they are 100% livestock.
Yes, you can keep a few alpacas as pets, but make no mistake, they are livestock and they have a purpose well beyond cute companions.
Alpacas originate from the vicuña, which is a South American camelid. They were bred to produce high-quality fiber for the rich and wealthy. This was their primary purpose and why they are referred to as producing the “fiber of the gods.” In addition to producing high-quality, hypoallergenic fiber, alpacas also produce offspring, hides, poop, and meat for sale.
Notice nothing there was mentioned as pets. Alpacas and their usage are signals of farming, livestock, and operating a farm as a business.
That said, older or nonbreeding alpacas do make excellent pets. This is because they no longer have the option of breeding and producing offspring. As the alpaca ages, their fiber micron levels increase and the quality decreases, which makes usage of the fiber more difficult and restrictive. This thus reduces the options for using alpacas, which is why older nonbreeders are turned into pets.
End of life is something we alpaca farms in the US need to work on to produce a more sustainable industry. Most older alpacas will go to families and be used as pets, however, that is not always ideal, since many people take on alpacas without understanding the true nature of their needs.
But the overriding point here is that alpacas are in fact livestock and they become pets out of lack of use. Alpaca farmers typically do not breed alpacas for pet usage, but they default to this as they age out of their working years.
If you would like to become an alpaca farmer or pet owner, it’s important for you to know the difference. Remember their first purpose is as livestock and as members of a working farm. They fall into the pet category when they fail to meet the quality standards needed or they age out.
This means you have livestock, and no matter how cute and fluffy alpacas are, they need to be treated as livestock. My caveat to this is they are highly intelligent livestock and this does impact how one would interact with them.
The next point of confusion involves alpaca herds and the need for maintaining this balance. Alpacas are herd animals with very limited ability to protect themselves. They feel safest in a herd and they are at the peak of mental and physical health when they are in a herd. We found this belief to be overly accurate as we grew our own herd.
Three alpacas are the minimum of what should be kept on a farm. Anything less will prevent a feeling of safety and will eliminate the ability to establish a social hierarchy. That will produce stressed alpacas and this will be illustrated in their behavior and fiber quality.
One additional point to note is that adult males and females cannot be part of the same herd living in the same quarters or pastures. Males must be kept separately, and this is true even if they are gelded and no longer capable of producing offspring.
I often hear or read about new farmers keeping males and females together. This can and will be physically damaging to the females, it will result in lost pregnancies, and possibly the death of the female.
As the alpaca owner and breeder, it is your responsibility to create the proper herd structure and physical boundaries to create a safe and healthy environment for your herd.
I mentioned earlier about both Ariana and Ginger talking to express their displeasure with a situation. Avalon also talks, but for her, she clucks as humans approach. It’s her way of signaling she sees you and her effort to create a friendly encounter.
Let’s review the various types of alpaca sounds:
- Humming – This is the primary method of communication and it starts at birth. When a new cria (alpaca baby) is born, the mother and cria hum constantly to each other. It is their way to communicate and stay connected. Alpacas will also hum in an effort to express distress or anger. This is especially true if living arrangements are changed, they are moved, or they are separated from their herd. Alpacas may also hum if they are curious, happy, or just plain cautious. You might be asking how you’d know the difference, but you will quickly know the hum and meaning if you listen. I know my alpaca hums and I know what they mean. I know this because I’ve spent the time to sit and listen to them.
- Snorting – Alpacas will snort when another alpaca is invading their personal space. It’s like a warning message to move away. We don’t have a lot of alpacas that snort, but the ones that do, snort often.
- Clucking – An alpaca will also cluck to express concern or to signal friendly behavior. I mentioned earlier that Avalon clucks and Stormy does too. Both cluck when they are excited to see humans approach the pasture. Ariana and Princess both clucked for their young crias.
- Alarm Call – I had never heard this until Zula arrived. If Zula sees something she fears, she will signal the herd of the threat by using her alarm call. I suspect this also is a warning message to the treat to depart. It’s hard to describe the sound, but when you hear it you will know it is the alarm call.
- Screaming – An alpaca scream is extremely loud. It’s as if someone set off a siren next to your head. Alpacas will scream when they are not handled correctly or when they believe they are not being handled properly. Ariana screams during shearing no matter how gentle the sheering team is with her. Thank heavens they are professionals, can power through the noise, and can remove the fiber quickly and safely regardless of Ariana screaming in their ears.
- Orgling – An orgle is a sound the male makes during breeding. It is not pleasant and it’s something that would send a human female running. The alpaca female doesn’t mind.
Now if you noticed in my listing of alpaca sounds, not everyone produced all the sounds. Each of our alpacas are fairly unique in what sounds they make and when they make them.
As the alpaca farmer, it is your job to listen, learn about each sound, and understand what this sound means for a given alpaca.
Everyone always asks about spitting. Alpacas do spit, but generally only on each other and only when upset. Spitting is not something that an alpaca walks around doing for no specific reason.
In the last year, I’ve been spit on three times. All three instances were in a few weeks’ time and all of them were due to me being in the way. Not once did the alpaca mean to spit on me personally. I just got myself in the path of the spit.
Alpacas are docile creators by nature. They would rather pleasantly interact with you before spitting at you.
The alpaca herd is similar to any community, group, or even gang. They have a leader and they have followers. The leader, or alpha, tends to watch over the herd and will influence the behavior of the other alpacas in the herd.
For example, Ariana watches over the herd, watches everything around the pasture, and keeps a keen eye on what the alpacas and humans are doing. If she senses danger she will hum. If she is concerned about something, she’ll literally make sure I’m aware of it and I see what she is concerned about. If she is upset with the behavior of another alpaca, she will make this known with other verbal cues or spitting.
Another example is Vin. Vin is the oldest alpaca we have and the matriarch. She is also an alpaca, but she is a milder alpaca. She still keeps watch as Ariana does, but she is slower to react and will be softer in her communication to another alpaca.
Both of our alpaca girls become very agitated if they are segregated from the heard. This is because they cannot keep watch and perform their alpha duties.
All herds need an alpha and I never interfere with this social hierarchy and interaction. I have interfered when it is obvious the alpha is picking on a specific alpaca. We have had this experience with Ariana and this was an example of alpaca behavior that I modified. Some may argue with me on that approach, but for the peace and stress level of the herd, I thought it was necessary. And in the end, Ariana and I still have a close bond and probably an even stronger bond because she now views me as a follow alpha.
If you look at our alpaca photos, you’ll clearly see we spend a lot of time with our alpacas. My husband is with them at least twice a day for chores and I go out to the barn each night after my workday ends. We both view this as an important part of alpaca farming and breeding.
The more human interaction we offer, the more we learn about alpaca behavior, and the more we know our alpaca herd. This allows us to better care for them and prepares them for an eventual sale to another farm.
A few things to remember about interacting with alpacas is they have long-term memories. If you treat an alpaca poorly, they won’t soon forget it. They are also highly intelligent animals. They can tell one human apart from another and they can learn how to adapt to different humans and each other.
You also need to remember that even though they can tell one human from another, your interaction influences their perception of all humans. You can either build up trust or degrade it with each encounter. I chose to build trust and respect, while also encouraging anyone who comes to our farm to do the same.
The more time you spend with your alpacas, the more you will be one with the herd. Notice I did not say one of the herd. You want to personally know and deeply understand your herd. It is only when this happens that you will be able to fully understand alpaca behavior and better see how your actions can influence it in a positive or negative manner.
People are often surprised when I state alpacas are trainable. This year I’ve found our alpacas to be very trainable, especially since most of my training wasn’t done with intent. I literally taught our adult alpacas “no ma’am” without even trying to do it, which makes me think I could have trained them for so much more if I was paying better attention.
Overall, I’ve found alpacas to be more trainable then family pets like dogs or cats. My assessment of this year’s activity with our alpacas has included the following:
- Alpaca intelligence varies alpaca by alpaca, just like it does in humans.
- Alpacas are very astute. They watch humans closely and use this information to modify their own behavior.
- Alpacas can watch and react to facial expressions of humans.
- Alpacas can learn verbal commands and be taught to take action based on these commands.
- Some alpacas begin to recognize physical items and recall their usage. Our alpaca Adel knows what an iPhone is and expects selfies when one is brought out.
- Alpacas know their names when you use them frequently.
- Alpacas know if one alpaca is receiving more attention than others. This isn’t true for our entire herd, but it is absolutely true for some of the smarter alpacas like Ariana.
- Alpha alpacas expect to be treated with respect and this pertains to both humans and the alpaca herd.
Just like humans, alpacas are unique. Not all are smart, nice, or agreeable. Figuring out the core behavior of an alpaca will help you modify it if needed.
One cannot discuss alpaca behavior without touching on the issue of Berserk Male syndrome. This is also known as “Novice Handler Syndrome” or “Berzerk Alpaca Syndrome.” It is brought upon by humans when they inadvertently incorrectly interact with young males. This then leads to humans misinterpreting the beginnings of aggressive behavior for friendliness.
Since we have two young males right now, we have to watch this closely. We interact with them, create a bond, but watch closely for signs of aggressive play or a desire for dominance. I’ve had two incidents where Teddy and Levi went from being loving to wanting to dominate me in play. I quickly stopped the behavior and have done my best to not encourage it moving forward. I don’t think either alpaca was being overly aggressive, but there is a fine line between play and male dominance. As the human it is my job to maintain the appropriate boundaries, so the young alpacas do not confuse me with an alpaca.
Mating is another topic that quickly comes to mind when discussing alpaca behavior. If you’ve ever witnessed mating with an aggressive male, you’ll know why. When the male is an aggressive mate, he will do everything within his power to complete his task and you do not want to get in the way.
I’ve found it very interesting to watch how this all plays out and to note how the male’s personality can vary during this process. Add in the elements of different environments and females and you will have even more variance in the male’s temperament.
Variations in temperament are not for the males alone. The female varies too. An unbred female alpaca can completely change her personality when a male arrives. Even the crabbiest alpaca can turn into a sweet docile female in an effort to be the winner of the mating session. We’ve witnessed this with Sienna on multiple occasions.
And while the mating is happening, there is always a spectator area in play. Any unbred females will lie down as close to the mating couple as they can. The bred females tend to stand back and just watch as if this is the entertainment for the day.
Alpaca pregnancies shift personalities drastically too. I would say virtually all of our alpacas have changed their personalities once they become pregnant. Friendly Stormy became aloof, while quiet and quirky Reba became spunky. Kalista, who would come greet me every time I entered the barn, now ignores me entirely.
The only one who hasn’t shifted drastically is Ariana. I’m not sure if this is because she is an old pro at it or if she is not affected by the hormone change as much as the others.
What I do know if my alpaca girls are affected by the change in hormones and we can see this by the dramatic shift in some of their behavior.
My Personal Tips for Managing Alpaca Behavior
I am not an alpaca expert. Far from it actually. But I do pay close attention to a person’s character and demeanor. This practice has transferred over to my interaction with our alpaca herd and I know I’ve benefited from it.
Below are my ten tips for encouraging positive alpaca behavior, building a strong bond, and making the most of your alpaca relationship:
- Talk Upon Approach – As I walk to the pasture or barn, I will start speaking while I’m far away so the alpacas can hear my voice and know it is a friendly and familiar human approaching. As Stormy dances or Avalon clucks, I know they are happy to see me. This brings them a sense of calm and it makes me happy to know at least some of the herd is excited to see me.
- Remain Calm – No matter what happens, remain calm and project this sense of tranquility to your herd. Alpacas are smart enough to feed off of your vibe and your mood, so make sure you don’t let this get altered while interacting.
- Don’t Bring Your Bad Day to the Barn – I’ve had a lot of bad workdays that left me exhausted and crabby. Instead of staying in this unpleasant mood, I choose to head to the barn and let the alpacas lift it away. In doing so I need to be careful of not transferring my stress to the animals. I leave my crabby at the door and allow the alpacas to replenish the void with peace.
- Time is Invaluable – The best gift you can give your alpaca is time. I cannot stress this enough. As eager as you are to become best friends, you need to adjust your expectations to align them with the alpaca’s personality and history. When you love your alpaca enough to give them time, they will know it, and that love will be returned to you as soon as the alpaca is ready.
- Just Be Present – Alpacas need time to adjust to their new surroundings and time to get to know you. The easiest way to facilitate this is to simply sit with them often. Take a chair and sit in the middle of the alpaca activity or off to the side. Let them see you exist with them and as part of them. Read a book if you must, but be present.
- Get on Their Level – I’m a tall woman and my head can be a few feet above some alpacas. I always make sure I lower my head to their level when interacting with them. I become less intimidating and the alpaca immediately becomes more relaxed. When I welcome children to the farm I always tell them they are the perfect size and this is because they are already at alpaca level. I personally believe it is one of the reasons alpacas love children.
- Make Eye Contact – Eye contact is important for human interaction and it is important for humans interacting with alpacas. I have found this to be important. If new alpacas, like Attie and Ginger, are uncomfortable with this, that’s okay and I’ll just keep trying. Soon enough they are comfortable and they realize eye contact is a way to interact and connect.
- Talk and Sing Them – This is probably one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. The more I talk to the alpacas, the more comfortable they are with me. And I don’t just talk to the herd as a whole. I patiently walk around and talk to each and every one of them.
- Use Their Names – Alpacas are easily smart enough to know their name and acknowledge their names being said. When I speak to each of our alpacas, I say their names while having our chat. I try very hard to name every alpaca in our herd when I visit. As the herd grows I miss some, but I catch them on the next visit. If your alpaca doesn’t currently know its name, keep repeating it. In a few weeks, I will know it and it will respond. And before I forget to mention it, I don’t use the “official” registry name. I use short versions like Vin, Attie, and Indie. It makes it much easier for communication and verbal reprimands if needed.
- Watch and Listen – There is so much you can learn if you sit quietly and watch and listen. I’ve always been one to people watch and now I alpaca watch. I’ve learned so much about general and individual alpaca behavior this way. If you take the time you can learn their body language and verbal cues, which will help you quickly identify stress, sickness, or plain old happiness.
- Address Anxiety – Don’t dismiss anxiety and stress, as it will quickly manifest itself in overall health and fiber quality. If you look at fiber, you can see exactly when alpacas undergo stress from farm moves, illness, or even bulling. If you see signs of anxiety, address them quickly. Comfort the one in stress and locate the source of the stress. A little intervention can go a long way to keeping your alpacas happy and healthy.
As with anything in life, the alpaca behavior you experience is typically comparable to the level of effort you put into your alpaca herd. You’ll have a very good understanding of each alpaca’s demeanor and temperament if you spend a lot of time interacting, listening, and watching. And the more you know and understand, the more you can shift this to produce more desirable behavior within the barn and pasture.
34 thoughts on “How to Understand Alpaca Behavior and Positively Influence It”
I live in Mississippi. I’m a Michigan native. I believe I have an interest in livestock alpacas. I need baby step guidance.
Melissa I’d suggest heading to a local alpaca show, the 4-H fair, and then reach out to the local alpaca association for your area. My husband leads our local association and he is more than eager to help others.
You’ll also find local farms will welcome farm visits and will provide plenty of education and mentoring. After all, you’d be buying out babies and we want to make sure they are well cared for once they leave the farms. =)
thank-you for your informative info…i have only boys and right now have a younger/maybe 7 yr old mounting an older arthritic 12 yr old often with many screams coming out of the older one. the older one has a napolean complex of being small and a bully so seems to be getting his due from the younger one that can dominate him now. any suggestions to maintain quiet? hard to separate them and only have 4 fiber boys total
That is a tough one, especially since separation isn’t a real option. I would separate at night if you can do so and still keep them all relatively close.
Right now we have a sick female and we separate her at night so she is close, but not in direct contact with the more aggressive females. This keeps her stress down, but also safe while she is recovering.
If cameras are an option, I would highly recommend that route. We put them in our barn and you would be amazed at what happens at night when no humans are around. Personalities change you you’ll see a different set of behavior in some of them.
When i touch my alpaca on the back he spits.i just got him and a other alpaca a few weeks ago they are both desexed
Beth it is a rare alpaca that tolerates their back touched. On our farm you can easily touch four of our alpacas on the back, but the rest (over 20) will not tolerate it. Alpacas do not like humans to touch their back or butts. You really have to have the alpaca from a young age to teach them this is a non-threatening action for them to allow it.
The best thing you can do is to give them the grace of time. Spend quiet time with them, so they know you are safe and not a threat. Once you start to build up that trust, you’ll be able to feed them pellets out of your hand which will continue to build that trust. As they progress with you, feed and lightly stroke the neck. From there you will be able to pet the neck without food.
Don’t attempt to touch the top of the head. Adel is the only alpaca on our farm that will allow this interaction and this is because my son showered her with attention since she was six months old.
As a rule, alpacas will like their neck lightly touched and a good scratch on the cheek. But like humans, they are all different and will prefer different touchpoints. Study your alpacas closely and you’ll see what they like and don’t like.
One final point is alpacas are best when there is a minimum of three animals. This is because they are herd animals and they need at least a small group of three to feel safe. This lack of a herd might be causing stress. It’s possible they are under stress already and you touching them is just amplifying the stress. I’d suggest locating a third alpaca if possible.
Hope that information helps!
Such great advice for a novice alpaca farmer like myself .
I have just welcomed our 4 alpacas two mums with female cria .. that are beautiful.. we are in Australia and it’s currently summer which is hot and dry at our farm
I hosed them yesterday and they loved it .. is this healthy for them ?
Many alpacas love the water hose. We will spray their underbelly and armpits, which seems to be the favorite spots. When my husband Jason gets out the hose the ladies will line up for their turn. So yes, it is perfectly acceptable to do so. And it is way better than the ladies standing in their water bowl. =)
Hi you write really well about alpacas – thank you! We have four males, one of whom has had a neck problem. He is now distancing himself from the other three. Do you have any observations on alpaca behaviour when unwell? Or why they would distance?
Hi, Thank you for all the great information. Do you know of any places that have disabled alpacas?
This has been so helpful! Thank you for the tips!
Hi, We acquired a small herd of alpacas from someone getting out of the business. They had 5 males (intact) and 2 females. All 7 have lived together all of their lives (the males were never separated from the females). We’ve now had the alpacas for about 6 months. One of the first things we did was have the males gelded. The oldest male (Tommy) is 7 years old and he is super friendly. I spend several hours a day with them in the barn (doing feeding and other chores)
Just in the past week Tommy has begun showing signs of aggression toward me. He rears up on his hind legs and comes toward me. At first I thought it was just a fluke but he continues to do it. Up until now he has seemed to be a very docile and well behaved alpaca. I’m aware of aberrant behavior syndrome (or beserk male syndrome). I’m hoping that he is not going down that path. Do you have any experience or advice on what I can do to discourage / stop this behavior. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks.
Bob, it seems odd for BMS to present at such an old age. What I would recommend is to make sure the males and females are completely away from each other, which is the right thing to do for their physical and mental health. We have separate pastures with different fence lines for boys and girls. Our females can get our herdsires revved up, which throws their behavior way out of whack. I would also make sure that you establish your position as the alpha. Don’t back down for a minute and make sure Tommy knows he is second to you.
Thank you for your comments and suggestions. As a follow up Tommy’s demeanor seems to have improved significantly. I started acting more like an “alpha” by waving my hands at him and “shooing” him away when he approached me and seemed to invade my personal space. He hasn’t reared up in about 2 weeks now. I hope it was just a temporary behavior problem. I realize now that i was probably encouraging the behavior. He would approach me and act like he wanted to smell my breath and i would rub his neck and head thinking he was just being overly friendly. I think this led to his feeling of dominance over me and then he started acting up.
I have both boys and girls that will smell my breath and hair, give kisses, and want to be pet. I indulge in all of it, as I appreciate them as much as they appreciate me. That said, when our breeder males have been around the females, I would not consider doing so, as their behavior is greatly influenced by the breeding process and hormones. We literally put the males in a time out area after breeding so they can calm down before we engage or before they are put back with other males. There is a fine line between love and attention and dominance, but you’ll find your balance between the two so you can show affection and still maintain your alpha status in the herd. Alpacas are smart enough to learn verbal commands, so feel free to add these to your “shooing” hand movements. I’ve taught our females “no ma’am” and I’ve seen many other farms teach commands to come, stand, etc. all via voice commands.
Hi Mrs. Gill,
I recently got a job working with therapy animals for a mental health facility. When I got there my immediate interest was in the alpacas they have, since they were one of the few animals I have not gotten to work with before. The big problem turned out to be that the corporate white collars had bought them at 8-12years old… having spent their WHOLE life on a farm with littler interaction. Having trained many animals before I took on the challenge. And believe me, it has been a challenge. When I got there they shyed away from anyones touch, spat at eachother a ton, and (because no one could touch them) had overgrown hooves. It took me a week (and a lot of bribery) to have them trust me enough to not run away. I finally took care of their feet and I think we all felt better. I learned several things quickly by watching them. One, the one with the best coat was alpha, they quit spitting when I said no ma’am (glad to see someone else talks that way to animals), and that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. I have worked with one a lot, she trusts me the most. After lots of work she eats me put a halter on her. I finally got her to let me take her all the way around the barn today! But the other two are still struggling. Any tips on getting really skittish alpacas (who don’t accept food bribes) to get more comfortable with me? Also, thanks for posting all of this, I’m surprised I’ve been doing things right, you really helped me feel more confident!
The skittish alpacas will just need time. Be present and around as much as possible, sit down on the ground so they can see you as a non-threat, and give them the grace of time. It may take another six months or six days for them to feel comfortable and build trust. It always seems that just when you think it will never happen, the trust emerges, and the alpacas relax.
Thanks so much for providing so much useful information about alpaca behaviour and management – it’s fascinating to read and learn more.
I wonder if I could also ask your opinion about a situation we are seeing with our herd. Last year, 2 young male alpacas were introduced to an existing herd of 6 males. This has happened in the two previous years also – with two alpacas being added to the herd each year, all alpacas obtained from the same local breeder.
Initially the two new youngsters appeared to integrate well into the herd, with the more established alphas of the herd really being very protective and caring towards them.
However in recent months one of the youngsters has appeared increasingly dissociated from the rest of the herd: he tends to stand alone in the paddock, is often pushed out of the way at feeding time (either not eating or picking up scraps from the ground), sleeps outside the main stable/shed at night and generally just seems “sad” – if that’s possible?! He has a very docile character compared to the other youngster he was introduced with, who is extremely boisterous and headstrong!
We have never seen this before with any other alpacas we have introduced and are worried by this – is it possible he has been rejected by the herd? Is there anything we can do as humans to improve this relationship within the herd? We aren’t aware of any incident that has caused this or why this rift exists.
Thanks again for all your articles!
Maria it does sound like he is the herd’s omega and is suffering mentally. He is either the outcast, stressed, or sad. If possible, I would move this male and a buddy into an adjacent paddock to see if his mood shifts when he is separated from the older males. In many cases, the males will work out the “pecking order”, the alpha will emerge, and everything will be fine. But there are also cases where a male (or female) just won’t fit in and you should take action if this is preventing proper eating or usage of shelter.
Why does female smell other female pee and poop and when do, why does alpaca tilt their head back??
Ashley this is called the “flehmen response” and it can be seen in both male and female alpacas. The alpaca is sniffing the urine or dung pile to get additional information on the alpacas who used it. Pregnant females will give off a different sent in their urine than an unpregnant female. When an alpaca performs the flehmen behaviour, they are simply collecting data points on the herd.
I really enjoyed your article and also the comments and questions. We have an older (11-21 years) herd of 14 (8 girls and 6 intact boys) here in Colorado. We have the two sexes well separated (separate barns and pastures and no shared fence lines) as we are not breeding at this time and have not done so for 10 years. I was wondering if you have ever experienced the girls mounting each other? Ours seem to do it pretty regularly complete with orgling! The vet seems to think it has something to do with dominance as it seems the more dominant girls mount the less dominant ones. Do you think gelding the boys (even though they are no where near the girls) would help end the behavior? Also, you mentioned that gelded males should not be housed with females, will they still try to mount them even if they’re gelded? We were thinking about moving to a place with only one barn and I was considering gelding the boys so everyone could live together as one big happy family!
Caryl the females generally mount each other for two reasons: (1) They are simply eager to get bred. Female alpacas can only have one cria a year and I swear they know this and the strong desire to breed is just hardwired to ensure the survival of the species. (2) The other reason is dominance. In my experience, this is a far lesser reason than the desire to breed.
I do not believe gelding the boys will change the situation. The females will still have the desire to breed and the gelded males will still have the ability to breed. A gelded male will still mount females and they can still do excessive harm if housed together.
Thanks for his helpful alpacas. I am Christina, living in Switzerland. I acquired 4 female alpacas on my farm and I also approached them in a similar way. As I love people watching too, I found myself sitting with my alpacas hours at a time, watching them. At the beginning I was training them to wear a harness but felt it was too soon because they seemed anxious. So now I’m building their trust. Although they are more comfortable with me, I am unable to get close to them. Gosh, I’d love to take them for walks. At what age is best to start getting my a harness on them? I fear it’s getting late for me, my alpacas are just over 2 years old. Any tips? Thanks.
There is no golden rule on halter training and age. My personal preference is to build trust first, and then once that is fully secure, I worry about halter training. When I begin halter training I use love and not force. I want the activity to continue to build trust and not degrade it. We’ve worked on halter training with ladies at 5+ and at 13+ years old. Age is irrelevant to me, as I find personality and trust are far more important when gauging the possibility of success.
I have a hard time understanding what separates play from aggressive behavior. Can you elaborate more on this subject? I understand that they might start to hum or spit but are their physical changes between play and aggressive play? Thanks for your articles I really love reading them. I wish to one day start a business; and your articles are really instructive. Although some things business wise might change since I live in Canada but I assume it won’t be that different.
Maxim it’s hard to put it into words. You just kinda know, as the boys’ posture, tone, and actions shift. Movements are more pronounced, verbal responses are louder, and the overall mood is drastically different.
In our “high school group” of established male breeders we had aggression when the group first came together. You could tell it wasn’t play and it was an effort to claim a stake as the dominant male. It settled down and now everyone lives in harmony now. They eat and lay close together without incident. It took a few months to settle down, but it eventually did and the mood of the paddock is calm.
Love your blog, Rebecca. I’m trying to build trust with some alpacas that have not been raised by humans and are in a farm with sheep to ward off foxes. While they will eat from my hand (though there is still some trepidation), I’m unable to actually touch them. Any move I make and they back off. I just want to pat them! Do you have any tips on how I can get closer to them and allow this to happen? Also, one keeps stomping his back leg and is super-scared to eat from my hand. Is the stomping a sign of frustration or something else? Thank you.
The stomping of feet is an indicator of being upset or stressed. It could be a sign of anxiety from the conflicting desire to eat from your hand (like the others) and the persistent fear of humans. Give him the grace of time and this should stop. Some alpacas enjoy being pet and others just don’t. Petting takes much longer to obtain than hand feeding. And remember that with some it may never happen.
I find the most success just sitting on the ground in the paddock or pasture with the alpacas. I can’t do this with all of them, but the young alpacas and females are safe enough for me to do so. I wouldn’t do this with a mature breeding male, but I always do it with my females. It creates a faster sense of trust and allows them to see me as nonthreatening and a friend.
My rule of thumb is just when you think it will never happen, it does. An older female named Treasure took me a year to obtain trust, and then once I had it, she trusted me and everyone else. So much so that someone fell in love with her a few months later, took her home, and immediately had her close, eating out of her hand, and eagerly interacting.
It’s really on their terms and timeline and not ours. Know they appreciate you even without petting. They can love you even without physical contact. Just like people, not every alpaca is an extrovert or touchy feely.
Thank you so much! Really appreciate the detailed response. Why wouldn’t you sit on the ground near a mature breeding male? That’s what I’ve been doing! Lol. Also, do you find there is a ‘right’ way of feeding? Now that they’re getting used to me, they almost charge at me when they see the bucket of feed and, while I don’t feel any aggression from them, I do feel a bit intimidated as they get their head very close to mine looking for the bucket behind my back. Thanks again.
We break out males into three paddocks, which I call elementary, middle, and high school. Elementary is the little guys aged one and under. Middle school is the guys who are two to four. High school is our experienced breeders who are five years plus. Of those males in high school, one is the Fonzi of the group. He commands all the attention of the ladies and everyone wants to breed him. But that comes with a much higher desire to breed and a stronger response after he breeds. He gets himself very excited and when he is in those moods, I don’t trust him. He wouldn’t intend on hurting me, he would just be very excited and instinctual. So really, he is the one I worry about and the reason I wouldn’t camp out in high school.
When alpacas are too eager for the food, don’t give it to them. Force good manners. Don’t give positive reinforcement for negative behavior. Our girls get very excited for treats and I train them to calm down and wait their turn. When the girls fight over food or are too much in my face, a “no ma’am, we don’t act like that here” is what they get from me instead of food. They will quickly learn to tone it down and to have better manners. Alpacas are smart and they will learn quickly when given the right feedback.
A male alpaca tried to mount his caregiver. The first time it happened. How should the caregiver respond if it happens again?
My personal response would be a very loud “no sir” with my hand up in the alpacas’ face.
There is a difference between I’m excited for dinner and I’d like to mate you. Excitement can be curbed with verbal, hand, and facial cues that are consistent. Advances for mating or dominance will require the caregiver to protect themselves with some form of instrument (broom or stick), not turn their back to the male, and be very quick to reprimand.
For the most part, alpacas are very smart and want to please. If the behavior hasn’t gone too far, it is fixable.
Rebecca, I just want to thank you for offering up such wonderful guidance! I’m planning on having an alpaca herd some day and want to mainly focus on tourism and healing with the alpacas. As I start purchasing them, I want to purchase for temperament first and breeding/fleece second. This article has been very helpful. Thanks again!!