Monday, February 16, 2015

The Dreaded M-Word

Last Monday during evening chores, I noticed that Amber was acting a little strange. She was walking with a kind of limp or stagger, and she kept holding her rear legs very far from her body, sometimes with her feet knuckled under. She hadn't fallen or had any other trauma that I knew of, so all my reference books and Googling were pointing toward the classic signs of a meningeal worm infection. Crap. I called the vet and he too thought it sounded most likely. Double crap.
When you start learning about alpaca care, everyone will give you fairly dire warnings about meningeal worm, a potentially deadly parasite carried by white-tailed deer and, intermittently, slugs and snails. Alpacas are exposed to the parasite when they eat grass that has a slime trail on it (some believe the alpacas actually ingest the snails or slugs, but most folks who keep alpaca realize how sensitive their lips are and know how unlikely this is!) The worm travels along the spinal fluids and spinal cord, causing central nervous system damage. Some books will even go so far as to tell you there is no cure and infection always results in death.

Thankfully, this isn't true. We have a wonderful vet out here (the upper Midwest's camelid expert!) who assured me that while she might never walk without a slight limp (depending on how much damage had already been done to the nerves in her back legs), she should otherwise recover well. He said we caught it very, very early, and he's never seen an alpaca who's in as good a shape as she's in not recover. He prescribed twice-daily shots of Banamine to reduce inflammation along the spine and once-daily oral drenching of a dewormer called Panacur for one week.

Even though I give the herd shots every few months (to ward off the m-worm, more on that below), I was pretty nervous about having to do this several times a day. Alpacas as a general rule don't take needles very well. And some alpacas get super stressed every time you try to work with them, which can cause abortions. Luckily, Amber is one of my calmest alpacas. She certainly doesn't enjoy being haltered and given medicines, but she doesn't fight me on it either.

The big scary-looking implement is an oral drencher. The long nozzle on it ensures more Panacure ends up in Amber than on the barn floor. The pink stuff is amoxycillin for the barn kitty, who has a UTI.

The vet gave her the first dose of everything while he was here, and showed me how to give an intramuscular (IM) shot, as I had only given subcutaneous (SQ) shots before. IM shots are way easier! My first morning on my own, everything went awesome. That evening, though, Amber sort of freaked out after I injected her. I give her medicines close to the beginning of chore time so I have plenty of time left in the barn to observe in case of any reactions. It was about 5 minutes after I left her pen, and I heard a bunch of spitting. This alone isn't that unusual--the alpacas routinely do a little posturing and jockeying during mealtimes. But when I turned to look, I saw she had Bear backed into a corner and was nibbling on his ear. As I approached, she ran across the pen and started picking a fight with Anna, who started fighting back. Full-on neck wrestling and chest bumping, like males do! I broke that up, then watched Amber pace around restlessly, cush, stand, cush, stand. Then, finally, she just started rolling around on the ground and kicking the leg I gave the shot in. I was so freaked out! Thankfully the vet was still open for another 10 minutes, so I called them and they assured me over the phone that she wasn't having a chemical reaction, she was just mad. I guess that sometimes when an alpaca starts to regain feeling in their back legs, they can lash out a bit because the shot hurt. Or when an animal who has been unwell starts feeling better, they sometimes feel like they need to reestablish their pecking order in the herd, and Amber is sort of the herd's matriarch. So for each shot since, I've made sure to distract her with grains for a few minutes after, and so far she hasn't repeated the behavior.

So, how did Amber get m-worm if I routinely deworm the herd? Most alpaca farmers mitigate the risk of m-worm by giving routine shots of a dewormer like Ivomec or Dectomax. Some do this as often as every 30 days year-round, some only do it August through December, and others develop a routine somewhere in between. Just like with antibiotics, overuse of dewormers can lead to immunity, so it is something to be somewhat cautious about. I've also read that traces of dewormer in the dung piles can reduce beneficial bugs in the soil and cause manure to break down less rapidly, which in turn can increase the risk of other types of parasites/worms.

So far, I've dewormed the herd every 45-60 days. This does leave a window of potential exposure as Ivomec only offers protection for up to 30 days, but it also reduces the chances of overuse while also greatly reducing stress on my herd from monthly shots. I'm not sure I'll change this going forward, though I am discussing with the vet. No matter what I chose to do, there is some sort of risk involved, so I have to decide which risks I'm most comfortable with.

I was down on myself for a few hours, thinking my inexperience most definitely caused Amber's infestation. But like anything else, deworming is not a failsafe. I know farmers who dose their alpaca religiously every 28-30 days and have still had cases of m-worm. My mentors were great in pointing out that at least I noticed there was a problem and acted on it, which many farmers don't do until it's too late. So that does feel good. It's one of the reasons I spend so much time out in the barn every day. I have few enough animals right now that I certainly don't need to scoop poops twice a day. I could toss them enough hay each morning to last all day, freshen their water, and have done with it. But not only do I enjoy my chores and spending time with the animals, but doing so allows me to much more quickly spot something that might be amiss. I just hope Amber truly will return to her normal self, and not have some lasting lameness. So far, she seems roughly the same. And with only one day of treatment left, maybe that means her nerves were too damaged to recover. But we'll see. The vet will call tomorrow to check in and we'll discuss, and I'll continue to observe.

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