Blazing A Trail Together

Students with llamas

Llamas belong to a biological family called camelids that includes camels, alpacas, vicunas, and guanacos. Natives of South America, the animals were virtually unheard of in the U.S. until the nineteen-seventies. Then thoughtful breeding by a few visionary llama owners led to a small market for llamas as pack animals and pets. Gradually, interest in camelids grew and people discovered that they also make great guard animals and fiber from their coats can be used for textiles. Today there are well over 100,000 llamas and alpacas in this country.

In 1986, Glen Pfefferkorn met with a group of fellow Oregon llama ranchers to form the Willamette Valley Llama Association (WVLA). At that meeting, OSU veterinary professor Dr. Brad Smith, and Corvallis veterinarian Dr. Pat Long spoke about the need for scientific research on medical issues facing llamas. “In 1986 there were no scientific papers or camelid medical books,” says Pfefferkorn, “and many veterinarians refused to treat a llama.”

Pfefferkorn had recently taken a sick baby llama to the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital and knew they had a fledgling camelid medicine program. He connected the dots and suggested the WVLA focus their efforts on one goal: camelid education and health research. “It was logical to me that a partnership between a veterinary college at a research university and owners of animals was a perfect match,” he says.

The North West Camelid Foundation (NWCF) was formed and began raising funds for OSU research. It was the beginning of a working friendship that would change the course of camelid medicine worldwide.

Thirty years ago, many people in the U.S. thought camelid physiology was similar to sheep and cows. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although camelids are grazing ruminants, their 3-compartment stomach and digestive system are unique. Unlike other ruminants, camelids do not have hooves; their feet are made up of toes and a pad, similar to a dog, making them sure-footed on rocky ground. Even a camelid’s red blood cells are different: they are elliptically-shaped which gives them more surface area, allowing more efficient use of oxygen – an adaptation from their origin in high elevations.

Early camelid research at OSU, funded by the NWCF, focused on the basics. Researchers found that camelids have their own specific requirements for use of antibiotics, sedatives, anesthesia and other pharmaceuticals. And OSU was the first to develop blood reference ranges, and guides for safe and effective vitamin supplementation; both are considered the standard worldwide today. OSU also developed tests for common infectious and parasitic diseases in camelids, and improved methods of treatment.

Recent camelid research at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine has been focused on gastrointestinal disease, diagnostic imaging, and energy metabolism.

OSU researchers have extensively investigated the metabolic process of sugar and fat in camelids, and discovered that their metabolism is similar to that of a human diabetic. This has led to the development of life-saving treatment techniques including low-volume fluid replacement therapy, the therapeutic use of insulin and amino acid solutions, and the pitfalls of using glucose. They have also set standards for adequate protein in the camelid diet. Current studies on the connection between hormones and blood sugar may provide insight into the treatment of human diabetes.

The team of diagnostic imaging specialists at OSU has published many recent studies describing normal and abnormal imaging anatomy for camelid organ systems, including guides for new technologies like computed tomography. These published findings have quickly become the standard used for diagnostic imaging worldwide.

Recent studies of gastrointestinal issues in camelids has led to published results on esophageal disfunction, ulcers, intestinal twists and obstructions, and parasitic disorders.

Today, OSU has an endowed professorship in camelid medicine, hosts the biennial International Camelid Health Conference, and publishes twice as much scientific research on camelid medicine as any other university. All of this would not have been possible without the inspiration of Glen Pfefferkorn and the dedication of the Willamette Valley Llama Association and the North West Camelid Foundation.

An Overview: Twenty Years of Camelid Research at OSU.