Claire has been performing infertility and breeding soundness examinations of alpacas and llamas since 2002 and can provide expertise that is unrivalled within Europe, having examined upwards of 1000 clinical cases.
Breeding Soundness Evaluation
Reproductive efficiency is vital in any livestock breeding business. Any period of time during which a reproductively sound female alpaca is not pregnant translates to a wasted investment. In an ideal world, a female alpaca is bred back 21 days after she gives birth and is pregnant for an average of 343 days. This gives an ideal interval between successive parturitions of approximately 364 days, or a little over one year. It is important to keep as close to this ideal as possible in order to have females giving birth during the ideal birthing months (Spring and Summer) or they will gradually slip back such that you are left with having to decide whether to breed a female in the Autumn or leave her until the following Spring, which wastes even more time.
Obviously, not every female will conceive every time she is bred: overall conception rates in alpacas are around 55%, so you have to expect some females will not become pregnant the first or even second time they are presented to the male. However, if a female is consistently repeating the same behaviour and not conceiving, there will be a reason for this.
For both male and female alpacas and llamas, a breeding soundness evaluation (BSE) by a vet with camelid-specific reproduction experience provides confidence that a particular animal is breeding sound either pre-purchase or pre-breeding, and is the quickest way to find out what is wrong in a case where a female is failing to conceive or a male is experiencing apparent infertility. Endlessly repeating breedings or continuously presenting a non-receptive non-pregnant female to a male in the hope that things might change is not only wasting time (and money), it may also make things worse.
A breeding soundness evaluation (BSE) involves a complete and systematic evaluation of the reproductive potential of a given animal including assessment of its ability and appropriateness to breed. The process involves an initial interpretation of history, physical findings and evaluation of the reproductive tract itself. The reproductive examination should include inspection of the external genitalia, and ultrasonographic evaluation of the entire reproductive tract.
In females the ovaries, each uterine horn, the uterine body, cervix and vagina are visualised under ultrasound and a vaginal examination will also be performed that looks for any abnormalities associated with the vagina or cervix. Further testing can be done if required – for example, uterine culture and/or cytology, uterine flush or hysteroscopic evaluation.
For males, a BSE involves ultrasonographic evaluation of the testicles and accessory sex glands to assess size and any evident abnormalities. In mature males, examination of a semen sample is essential.
Semen evaluation involves a check on sperm concentration, motility and morphology of the sperm as well as an assessment of the proportion of live/dead sperm. Both are evaluated after extending the semen to permit the sperm to be able to move out of the gel-like semen – otherwise the sperm are just stuck in gel and you can’t see whether or not they are capable of progressive motility and it’s hard to spread them on a slide for proper evaluation. Morphological examination of the sperm assesses the presence of any sperm defects and the potential origin of the problem.
Other diagnostics might be recommended depending on the findings.
In the equine world, no one will buy a horse without a “vetting” to ensure that the horse is fit for its intended use. This is done pretty much regardless of value by individuals seeking to ensure that they are not going to be saddled (excuse the pun!) with a horse that will cost them money or not be able to perform its intended tasks. In the alpaca industry, most breeders sell alpacas with warranties of fertility since breeding is their “intended use”. The problem with this is that sometimes disputes arise between buyer and seller when it may not be clear how or when a reproductive problem arose. This is particularly true for males where for example, disputes arise over fertility due to the presence of small testicles – were they small before, or have they atrophied due to disease? And if disease such as heat stress caused it, when did this occur? If there is no paperwork attesting to that male’s status at the time of purchase, these disputes can be problematic. A pre-purchase reproductive evaluation may not be feasible for all alpacas bought and sold but may be worth considering for high value alpacas, or alpacas that are going to be exported when to return them may present significant obstacles.
A breeding soundness evaluation may be performed to ensure that a maiden female has all the correct female anatomy that is of the correct size, with no congenital abnormalities, and to confirm that there is evidence of ovarian activity. In some instances, breeders insist on a pre-breeding check to ensure that a female has no evidence of reproductive problems (especially vaginal discharge that may indicate uterine infection) so as not to waste their time or that of the males, or potentially put their males at risk. This is usually a relatively quick examination and involves an ultrasound of the reproductive tract (via the rectum) and a vaginal examination. For males, a pre-breeding evaluation ensures that he is ready to be bred and evaluation of sperm ensures that you do not waste time breeding females to a male who is infertile.
Following a difficult birthing
Following a difficult or assisted birthing. A “post-dystocia check” at 10-14 days post-partum is recommended for females who have had any sort of assisted delivery. This is because there may be problems that are easily addressed at this stage that may become difficult or impossible to resolve down the line. For example, these females are more likely to have uterine infections than females who experienced a normal delivery due to possible introduction of bacteria by human manipulations of a malpresented cria. At this point in time, a uterine flush and possible systemic antibiotic administration (using an antibiotic that is known to achieve good concentrations in the uterus) may resolve the issue with relatively little impact on the female’s subsequent fertility. If undiscovered, chronic endometritis may result and this may have a longer-term impact on the female’s reproductive future. Also, if a female experienced vaginal tearing during a delivery, at this point, the vaginal wall may be trying to heal and may heal across the vaginal vault. If undiscovered, this will result in scar tissue formation and this will result in a female that cannot breed – and is entirely preventable by recognition and appropriate treatment at the appropriate time.
A female BSE costs £275 +VAT (March 2023).
A male BSE including semen evaluation costs £350 +VAT (March 2023).
Any additional diagnostic testing if required would be in addition to these prices. [As an example, one frequent diagnosis in female infertility is endometritis: additional costs for the culture, lab testing and a uterine flush would be around £147 +VAT.]
If you’re uncertain about whether reproductive evaluation is worth it, consider a cost-benefit analysis. Let’s say that you have a female alpaca worth £5000. Consider that she may have 10 crias for example and, on average, 50% of those cria should be female and 50% male. If we make the assumption that each female cria is worth the same as the dam, and assume that the males will be pet quality since only the best males should be used for breeding (let’s assume that the sale price for a gelding alpaca is around £500), then your potential sales from offspring from this female could total around £27,500, with the average value per offspring of £2,750. So, if that female loses a year of breeding, which may have been prevented by proceeding with a timely reproductive evaluation, you’ve effectively lost £2,750. This analysis does not take into consideration the amount spent on managing and feeding a non-pregnant alpaca, vaccinating her, and neither does it consider the time costs of the individuals (and males) that are trying to get her bred. Obviously the costs will vary depending on the alpaca but you could lose more than this and it could be entirely preventable! Compare these losses with the cost of the BSE, at my clinic a full evaluation of male or female camelids costs around £200-250 (current prices).
Investigation of infertility is indicated for any breeding animal that fails to breed successfully. Reproductive evaluation by a vet with camelid-specific reproduction expertise is the quickest way to find out what is wrong. Endlessly repeating breedings or continuously presenting a non-receptive non-pregnant female to a male in the hope that things might change is not only wasting time (and money), it may also make things worse. Some problems are easily resolved, some require a little more treatment, while in other cases evaluation may find that an animal needs to be removed from the breeding pool. Regardless, the less time that is wasted for either the serious or casual breeder the better.
- Any female who breeds at every behaviour test (at 7 day intervals).
- This indicates failure to ovulate
- In a maiden, it may indicate immature reproductive tract or anatomical abnormality, or also recessive behaviour
- Allow 3 breedings and if still receptive at the 3rd or 4th week, consider having a reproductive evaluation performed.
- Any female who breeds and then spits off and repeats the cycle again.
- Indicates ovulation is taking place, but conception is not occurring
- Do not repeat this cycle more than 3 times without seeking advice from an experienced camelid vet proficient in reproductive techniques.
- A female who is continually non-receptive over a 2-3 week period if behaviour-testing has been done regularly during this period.
- She should have been receptive at least once during a period of 2-3 weeks if spat off 3 times a week
- Possibly indicates a retained CL or an unexpected pregnancy. In a maiden, could be a reproductive anomaly or indicate inexperience. Non-pregnancy should be confirmed before using any luteolytic medications such as Estrumate!
- Any other situation where conception failure is occurring and you do not know the reason.
- For males:
- when females are failing to conceive despite repeated attempts and especially if the same females are conceiving when bred to different males
- when the male doesn’t appear interested in breeding
- if you are concerned about the size of his testicles or changes in his genitalia.
Claire has been performing infertility and breeding soundness examinations of alpacas and llamas since 2002 and can provide expertise that is unrivalled within Europe, having examined upwards of 1000 clinical cases. Most vets are trained in cattle and horse reproduction, but do not receive any training in Camelid reproduction. Camelid reproductive physiology is very different from that of other domestic animals, and they experience different reproductive problems: detailed knowledge is essential in order to reach diagnoses in reproduction cases. Camelid reproduction is therefore a niche knowledge area and, with the exception of routine pregnancy diagnosis, would be considered an ideal area for referral.
Apart from the correct knowledge and training in reproductive techniques, proper equipment and facilities are also required in order to facilitate reproductive examination of camelids.
- CVS has a custom-made alpaca restraint chute, designed specifically with reproductive examination in mind. This allows reproductive evaluation to be performed without the need for sedation in the great majority of cases.
- CVS has a high quality ultrasound machine that enables detailed evaluation of the reproductive tract.
- We also have other equipment that can be useful in reproductive evaluation including an endoscope, microscope (for cytology and semen evaluation), and the ability to perform in-house culture and sensitivity. In addition to this, we have all the equipment necessary for embryo transfer.
Claire has been trained in embryo transfer techniques by Jane Vaughan of Cria Genesis. Jane’s successful ET programme is well-known internationally. You can therefore be assured that your animals will be in safe hands and will not be being experimented on!