Claire E. Whitehead
Five and a half years ago, I had an idea. I had already been a qualified veterinary surgeon for two years but had very little veterinary knowledge about alpacas, despite working with them for some years. It struck me that although there were a small number of wonderfully enthusiastic vets working with camelids, most of us were transferring our knowledge of other species and working from basic principles. This would sometimes be successful and at other times not, but I found it a frustrating state of affairs. So I wrote to Dr David Anderson at The Ohio State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital as I knew that he had been working very successfully with camelids. He invited me to come and spend some time at Ohio State, and I took up a Research Fellowship with him in March 2002. This allowed me to work with him, learning about camelid medicine, surgery and reproduction, and in return I was to complete a research project.
While I was there, Dr Anderson found funding for a residency program in Camelid Medicine ? the first of its kind in the world - and I jumped at the chance to apply. Happily I was accepted and began the three-year residency in July 2002. A residency is all about improving your skills in a certain discipline ? I was enrolled with the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, specifically for Large Animal Internal Medicine and my caseload was very heavily geared towards South American Camelids. You are working in a hospital environment, seeing cases daily (and nightly), teaching veterinary students while at the same time having mentors right there whom you can tap for advice and help with cases. Residencies are not for the light-hearted ? it entails 60-80 hour working weeks, many sleepless nights on call, a not-too-flashy salary of around £13-14K per annum (taxable) and, at Ohio State all residents were enrolled in a Masters degree program at the same time just to occupy any spare time that we happened to have!
The Food and Fibre Animal Section at Ohio State is the most active in the whole of the United States, seeing more cases in the hospital than any other vet school. The section sees around 1500 llamas and alpacas annually from a total of approximately 3500 cases (cattle, camelids, sheep, goats, pigs and the occasional deer). In 2005, about 950 of these llamas and alpacas were hospitalised patients. Crias formed a significant part of our caseload and we would deal with neonates having failure of transfer of passive immunity and subsequent septicaemia (bacterial infection of the blood) and meningitis, neonatal diarrhoea, congenital abnormalities such as choanal atresia, heart problems or blocked nasolacrimal ducts, and angular limb deformities. We had an Intensive Care facility at the hospital so that all of our patients could be cared for throughout the day and night. In addition to the many sick patients, both young and old, that were cared for in the hospital, I also saw a significant percentage of reproduction-related cases ? and performed breeding soundness evaluations on male and female alpacas and llamas and also reproductive evaluations and treatment in the case of infertility.
There was a thriving research and teaching herd kept on university property and this was funded entirely by donations from our supportive camelid clients. Much of the research done was either funded by donations to our Camelid Health Program from individuals or by way of fundraising auctions, by local camelid breeder organisations such as the Ohio River Valley Llama Association, or by funding obtained from national funding bodies such as the Alpaca Research Foundation through competitive research grants.
When our teaching herd became much reduced due to financial constraints in 2005, it was no longer possible to teach our students camelid handling and blood-sampling techniques since there were too few animals to work with. In order to counteract this deficit in the teaching programme, I worked with a model maker specialising in alternative teaching methods in order to develop a Camelid venipuncture model for simulating as realistically as possible the techniques of drawing blood and intravenous catheter placement. Blood sampling an alpaca or llama is harder than in many species because of their unique anatomy. (See figure 1)
During my time at Ohio State, I developed an interest in clinical research, mainly because there is so much that we don?t know about these wonderful animals. It seems that every sick alpaca raises questions that you want to find out the answers to. One of the subjects that I was particularly interested in concerned the development of rickets in crias. This disease is quite a problem for alpacas and llamas farmed outside their traditional environment in South America and I wanted to try and find ways to prevent rickets without the need for repeated injections or oral supplementation. I began working on a project investigating the trans-mammary transfer of vitamin D to neonatal llamas and alpacas. I wanted to see if you could improve the vitamin D status of newborn crias by supplementation of the mother in late pregnancy and through the lactation period. Early studies were promising but more work is needed in this area to determine the best way to achieve this. This initial research interest led me into investigating different areas of vitamin D metabolism and these species? apparent adaptation to living at altitude. My other research interests include neonatal care, causes of neonatal diarrhoea, neurological diseases and anaemia.
Throughout my time in the US, I gave educational seminars to camelid breeders on neonatal care as well as medical and management topics and was a speaker at numerous State and National Alpaca Shows. In addition, I have spoken at the last four International Camelid Veterinary Conferences in the United States. I was Course Co-Director for the most recent of these conferences held at Ohio State in March 2006. Our Camelid Neonatal Clinics, which took place twice a year, covered reproductive and neonatal issues as well as management of the pregnant alpaca and llama.
I have now returned from the US and I am in the process of establishing a Camelid Medicine and Reproduction Service at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) near Hatfield in Hertfordshire. The RVC recognises that camelids form an increasing percentage of the caseload for private practitioners and that new veterinary graduates need to be prepared to deal with them. Until now, camelids have not been included in the curriculum.
Additionally, the new Camelid Medicine and Reproduction Service at the RVC will be the first hospital-based service specifically set up to serve the camelid community and the facilities will be designed in order to reflect this need. It will be a referral hospital service having a dedicated clinician with responsibility for camelid cases. In order to have an alpaca or llama seen at the RVC, you will need to first consult with your own local vet and have them contact the RVC to arrange a referral appointment. In certain instances, your vet may not actually need to see the animal first, but you should always contact your local vet before contacting the RVC so that they are aware of what is happening with patients that they are responsible for. I am also available for phone consultation with your local vet if they should need advice on how to handle any sick animals or herd problems. My contact information is shown at the end of this article.
The Camelid Medicine and Reproduction Service at the RVC will be able to deal with a whole range of medical and reproductive problems (including breeding soundness exams for males and females) as well as some surgeries. Orthopaedics and some of the more unusual surgical procedures will be available in conjunction with the Equine Hospital surgeons. For neonatal problems, our diagnostic laboratory will be able to perform the camelid-specific IgG test in order to detect failure of transfer of passive immunity from inadequate colostrum intake, and we will have a plasma bank available. Our facilities are currently being upgraded, and we hope to have a newly renovated camelid facility within the Farm Animal Hospital by the end of the year. In the meantime, we will largely be based within the Equine Hospital and will be able to offer a full service starting in April.
My vision is to create a Camelid Health Programme based at the RVC in association with the referral service, and this will provide an integrated learning programme for students in the area of husbandry and medical care (via the clinical service) and also be a centre for camelid-related research projects. The RVC is very pro-active in its development of alternative learning methods such that live animals do not have to be used in teaching and I hope soon to have my camelid venipuncture model available for teaching here at the RVC. I also plan to be able to provide continuing education courses and seminars for vets and breeders. At Ohio State, our neonatal courses were always very popular with breeders and I plan to offer these at the RVC.
If you would like to support the Camelid Health Programme at the RVC, we would be very happy to accept any donations. All money raised would be used entirely for camelid-related ventures, to buy equipment for the Camelid Medicine and Reproduction Service, and to fund research projects. Please make any cheques out to the Royal Veterinary College Animal Care Trust and send them to me at the address below so that I can ensure that your donation enters the correct fund. Note that donations from UK taxpayers are eligible for Gift Aid so that, for every pound you give, we are able to receive an extra 28p from the Inland Revenue. [In order to qualify your donation for Gift Aid, you will need to send a Gift Aid Declaration to us and you will find the simple online form at www.rvc.ac.uk/act/GiftAid.]
Claire E Whitehead BVM&S MS DipACVIM MRCVS
Lecturer in Camelid Medicine and Reproduction
The Royal Veterinary College
Tel 01707 666432