Friday, 20 April 2012

A close shave

One for the Alpaca owners really..  No cute kids, no humorous photos, in fact writing this I am wondering can anything from our vast archive of Alpaca photos illustrate the topic.  I'll think of something no doubt but..

I believe that convention is that you castrate non-breeding male Alpacas at around 18 months old. But when 18 months came along we didn't follow convention. We had done some superficial research and taken some advice and believed that it would be better to let the boys grow fully before doing this.

At 18 months this was an easy decision to make.  They were still growing and at that time the decision was made not to castrate mostly to avoid any chance that their conformation could be effected.  And anyway, there really wasn't any outward sign of any other pressing need we could think of so the event was postponed until they were a little older.

Time passed and as the boys are now nearly full grown that reason has evaporated. We fell in with convention and booked the vet so we could get it done before flies were a problem. However, we are not ones for following convention and usually plough our own furrow - however daft. As we waited for the appointed date we started to try and rationalise the decision, the debate went something along the lines of..

Reasons to do it ...
  • Improving the national herd. Removing less than desirable genes from the pool.  Well, given enough time and bottles of malt we could debate eugenics vs husbandry vs economics vs animal rights and arrive at a decision based on moral and philosophical argument.  I am sure I would enjoy the debate not to mention the malt.  But we can save our anguish and hangovers as this this isn't applicable. The boys genes are not in danger of entering the pool so this isn't a good reason to rush into a castration.
  • Avoid accidental breeding.  Well unless there is a realistic chance of the boys leaping the walls and creating a Chimera from next doors hens, or a passing horse this reason doesn't apply either. 
  • To modify group behaviour.  This I can buy.  I can see a rationale that rivalry and competition within the group could be avoided by castration and that the welfare of all the members of our group would be improved by reducing stress. There is a well established dynamic in the group.  I was going to say pecking order but its not a straightforward as that. Fin is the nearest thing to a 'leader'.  He will try to muscle in on Noah's feed bowl if he finishes his own first but Noah has his limits and Fin will back off. There is a healthy respect between Fin and Kenzie.  They are not aggressive to one another and will both avoid confrontation but again, lines are drawn, and Kenzie will let Fin know if he oversteps the mark. There are antics in the field, the occasional wrestle and mounting but its clearly horse play and its as often as not Noah instigating as anyone else.  So I don't think we have a problem here that would mean castration is needed.
  • To avoid frustration.  Males in a herd have a purpose. It is an artificial environment we have put them in where they can't fulfil that purpose.  If there were females around then I could see this being a problem but there really isn't a whiff of Alpaca oestrogen anywhere near.  I am not sure what signs I would look for though.  I have noticed Kenzie has a sniff around the poo pile and he does lift his nose and sniffs the air.  But I think this is as much a personality thing as anything else as he also does this as a greeting to me.  Is there anything else I should be looking out for?  So this is a good reason, but unless I am missing the signs, not a good enough reason by itself.
  • To fulfil an obligation.  Most often 'pet boy' is assumed to mean wether  (I think I am right in this?) this would mean that they would have come to us castrated young, or not come until adult so that the breeder gets more of a chance to assess the value or potential of the animals. We wanted to get the boys young as there were many benefits to us in terms of handling and learning, not to mention our excitement and a wish to start the adventure as soon as possible. We were very grateful that our breeder was willing to risk loosing a potentially high value sale and risk their investment in genetics 'leaking' by selling the boys intact.  Again a good reason, but if there is an obligation, its not one that can't be fulfilled by honesty and trust. So not a good enough reason to wield the knife.
 Then there is the reasons not to ...

  • Medical Risk.  The procedure would mean sedation and then there is a risk of infection in the wound.  Minimal risk I know and we have a great vet so I don't think that this is a problem. 
  • If it ain't broke - Don't fix it.  Really this is a bit of a question due to our inexperience.  Perhaps if we delay until we see an obvious reason the damage will be done and we will have to live with the consequences?  Does anyone have experience to share?
  • Would I like it done to me?  There is a clear answer to that .. NO.
So as you can guess, we cancelled the vet who was very understanding of daft folk. We will have to do it now or wait until September so we have a few more months to observe and decide.  But experiences and opinions would be welcome. 

So now for that picture ..

Would castration diminish Noah's fascination with farm machinery?  Here he is actually pawing at the tractor.  He really is fascinated by it.

And to sign off.  Despite his passive demeanor, smaller stature and low standing in the group.  Noah has the most to lose - he's well endowed down (back?) there !


  1. You would have found Eric Hoffman's lecture at WAC on group behaviour interesting Andrew. In their natural habitat a Macho will form a group with around 12 females. The other males form a batchelor group (again around 12) and accept their position within the herd. The Macho usually keeps his position for around 3 years before he replaced by a new 'top dog'.

    I think the key is that you have handled your boys correctly and kept their respect. As you say if it ain't broke...

  2. Very interesting presentation of each side of the argument Andrew! We have 2 males about the same age as yours...Button and Dexter. We are leaving both intact as we may use them later over our girls, and so far all is well in the paddock! They play fight but definitely no more than play, they have a sort of heirarchy as there is an older whether, who was gelded at 5 years old, in with them...he is boss!! We had our older boy gelded as he was very difficult when he arrived, and it has calmed him down and made him easier to work with, but he still dominates in the field. Whilst we notice our boys becoming more independant as they get older, they continue to co-operate well so they hang onto their bits! I did learn, on the course I went on earlier this year, one more reason to maintain a higher quality fleece as apparently it deteriorates more quickly in an entire male than a gelded one. However, the recommended age was around 12 months which, contrary to what I've read elsewhere, was felt to be the best compromise between growth and retention of fleece quality. 12 months feels a little young but I'm no expert!

  3. This is a topic that I suspect most alpaca folk will have discussed, worried about, taken advice on, spoken to Vets about, read up on the internet - and then ended up keeping their fingers crossed whichever decision they made! Advice on alpaca care can sometimes be conflicting - as you have no doubt discovered! When we got our first 4 boys (Faro, Fyta, Fergus and Fidget) five years ago they were intact but after a lot of consideration and worrying (even a sleepless night before THE day), two vets carried out the procedure in the field shelter. Robbie helped to hold the boys still on the ground and I was around the corner keeping the other boys (and myself,) calm! The vets used local anaesthetics and all the boys were fine, walking about and eating straight away. During the following 24 hours there was obviously a bit of discomfort and the boys liked to lie down with their legs stretched out, but after that they were fine. We were genuinely concerned that the boys would be scared/put off/reject humans after that, but again no problems at all. Alpacas are forgiving animals! Our next 4 boys (Gully, Gaucho, Rufus and Wee Eck) were gelded before we got them and we believe they were sedated during their procedures. Our overall consideration was that with a bachelor herd, with no intention of breeding and a possibility of long term re-homing (we are not as young as some of you guys!) we wanted to calm any aggressive tendencies. Four years later the boys are all well, interacting well as a herd and we believe that we took the right decision for us and our boys. When to castrate is one of the issues which can cause conflicting advice! Good luck! Shirley & Robbie

  4. If you 'de-nut' them you have nothing to threaten them with if they misbehave, ie: "If you do that again you naughty boy, the nuts are coming off!"

    But if you do 'de-nut' them they might behave better anyway?

    Who knows? You know them best. You'll make the right decision.

  5. Well-put summary of the pros and cons Andy - regarding Noahs fascination with farm machinery - if you have him castrated, he may lose that instinct, and start spinning his own fleece, followed by knitting! :-)