Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Preemie Pains

I went out to do chores Friday evening around 5:30 as usual. It was such a lovely evening, that I decided to sit in the pasture for a bit before scooping poops. The lambs were playing, ewes and 'pacas chomping grass. Amber was a little separate from the herd, closer to the barn, and making a grunty sort of humming noise while she grazed. It was constant, and a different sound for her. "Is she going into labor?" I wondered. I took a look around, and saw a pile of white fluff in the eastern pasture. Oh, shit.

I took off running, a lead weight in my belly and heart in my throat, absolutely fearing what I would find. A tiny, delicate cria. Covered in flies. Shit, shit, shit! I had no idea how long she had been there. I have no idea why that day, of all days, I didn't do my routine lunchtime pasture check. But no use dwelling over, I had other matters to attend to. As I bent over the limp body, she hummed a bit and tried to move her head. With shaky hands I dialed the vet's number. He told me to get her and mama to a safe space, and try to get some of mama's milk in baby. So then I quickly dialed my MIL's number. I asked her to come to the barn and bring the birthing kit.

By this time Amber had wandered back over to investigate again. Amber's previous owners told me she was always a very good mama, so I think the only reason she left baby alone was that when it was clear she couldn't get up on her own, she figured she was dead. Though alpacas are fairly large, they are still prey animals. And prey animals have an instinct not to lie down with a sick or dying animal. But thankfully, Amber wasn't too checked out and did readily follow me as I carried her little babe into the barn. I set up a quick little catch pen so they could be free of distractions and nosy critters, and I got to work.

First, a little jacket for baby, who was shivering a bit. I didn't want her to waste any energy trying to keep herself warm. But she was too tiny for the cria coats I have on hand. So I ran to the house for a dog coat. Thank goodness our smallest dog is always cold in the winter and thus we had little sweaters on hand! With a few snuggles, she was starting to revive a bit, and mama was starting to show a bit more interest.
Next up, get milk in baby. She was not strong enough to nurse on her own yet since she couldn't even stand. Nursing within the first few hours of life is critical for farm babies. Not just for the nutrition needed to grow, but mama's first milk is actually an antibody-rich substance called colostrum. Babies can only absorb this for several hours after birth. Without it, they have no passive immunity from mama to ward off parasites and disease.

So, I had to figure out how to milk an alpaca. You never realize how much the animal care books don't tell you until you need this sort of practical information. "If baby doesn't nurse, you will need to milk the mother." And that's it. No how-to, not even a tiny hint or trick. And friends, alpacas have the smallest teats ever. Smaller than my tiny sheep who weigh at least a third less than they do. Plus, I've never milked a creature in my life. There's a technique to it, almost an art. Thankfully, Amber displayed the patience of a saint while I clumsily fumbled at her udder. I filled a tiny syringe (no needle attached) with milk and squirted into baby's mouth, along with some Nursemate (a colostrum supplement). She took it pretty well, so I gave her another syringe full of mama milk. By this time, she had revived sufficiently enough for me to stand her up under mama to try to milk on her own. I had to hold her in place and guide her mouth to the teats, but she was hungry and started suckling on her own. Phew! Maybe things were going to go okay.

I took a few minutes to more closely inspect baby, and also to text my mentors at Whistling Pines Ranch. I am constantly so grateful for their assistance and patient support! Even on holiday weekends when they are in the field trying to clear 1200 bales of hay. Troopers and good egss, these guys! Anyway, baby showed every sign of being a preemie, even though Amber wasn't too far from her earliest due date. Floopy ears, lax (limp) legs, no front incisors yet, bright red mucous membranes. Since Amber has been fairly unhealthy this year, it could be that her cria's development was interrupted or stalled at some point in utero, thus presenting as a preemie even though technically probably full-term.
For the next few days, I helped baby nurse every 1-2 hours around the clock to make sure she had a fighting chance. I also closely watched her temperature and weight. Friday and Saturday night were pretty rough, setting my alarm every 90 minutes or so to slog out to the barn. Thankfully, little girl had a TON of fight in her and I didn't need to do much to encourage her to nurse. Just massage her legs and neck to get her moving, then set her on her feet under Amber. The rest she did herself.

I dubbed her Charlotte. I totally forgot a certain princess bears the name now, otherwise I would've maybe chosen something else. A friend also told me that hospitals give babies in the NICU super macho nicknames to help them fight. So Jon chose Monster. 
Sunday afternoon, our little CharMonster got up from a seated position for the very first time without my assistance. She was still pretty wobbly on those skinny little legs, but she went right over to Amber and started nursing. Such relief! By the time I went to bed Sunday, Charlotte was routinely getting up on her own and nursing, so I only had to check her twice that night.
 Monday she weighed in at 15.1 pounds—1.6 more pounds than her birth weight! This is fantastic growth and means she's getting lots of milk from mama.
Tuesday, I took her and mama outside twice for the healing touch of sunshine and fresh air. Not to mention the moral support of the rest of the herd! Charlotte did awesome. She was running full-tilt through the pasture! Unbelievable. And adorable.
The sheep have no idea what to make of this curious little creature. Charlotte has decided they're fun to chase, and so far they won't stand up to her! It's pretty funny.
I think Mal is pretty smitten with his half-sister (they share a father). He's more curious about her than the rest of the herd.
Charlotte is getting stronger and more alert every day. I'm really hopeful she'll develop into a normal alpaca. She is still pretty susceptible to nasty parasites and things like pneumonia, but every day she gets closer and closer to being okay.

Emmy Lou's cria is due any day now. Fingers and toes crossed for a normal, healthy delivery!

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