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Alpaca vs Llama: What are the Differences? (With Pictures)
Alpacas and llamas are becoming very popular pets for people who have the space to keep large animals. However, to see an alpaca and a llama side-by-side, you might wonder, which is which? You might even be surprised to learn that both animals are members of the Camelidae (camel) family. Closely related, the differences aren’t always easy to spot. Let’s take a closer look, and along the way, you might learn some surprising information!
Technically, Both Are Camels
First of all, not all camels come from the Middle East and North Africa. Alpacas and llamas are descendants of the Protylopus, the earliest known camel living in North America 40 to 50 million years ago. The Protylopus migrated to South America roughly 3 million years ago. These camels were eventually domesticated, most likely, during the 13th-century Incan period.
Like their larger South American camel cousins, alpacas and llamas need relatively little water. It’s an adaptation from eons of living in the mountains. As you may guess, they are hardy, too. They look quite similar, but there are some significant differences between them.
The South American camel species are all closely related, including the guanacos and vicuñas. The llama is the domesticated animal from the guanacos, while the alpaca has that same relationship with the vicuñas. For as different as they are, alpacas and llamas can mate. Both animals are relatively easy to keep, too. Let’s run down what you can expect by inviting a camelid into your life.
A Quick Overview
Peru is the homeland of the cute and curious alpaca. For centuries, that was the only place they lived. The native peoples raised them for their wool, keeping large herds of the animals. That explains their social behavior. Eventually, the rest of the world found out about them. It may surprise you to learn that Ohio has the most alpacas in the United States at 27,567.
There are two breeds of alpaca, the Huacaya and Suri. The former is the one you’ll most likely see. People from all over the world keep them as livestock or pets. They even have their own organization, the International Alpaca Association (IAA), with 16 official colors. The group takes protecting the alpaca and its fiber seriously. They have a trademark that attests to its quality called the ALPACA MARK.
Like other pets, early socialization is paramount when owning an alpaca. He is a social animal that needs the company of others around him. Therefore, the alpaca will fare best in groups. One look at his face will tell you everything you need to know about his personality. He is a sweetheart that is quite gentle if raised properly. Well-trained alpacas make excellent therapy animals.
To understand them better, it helps to view life from the alpaca’s perspective. In his native Peru, he is a prey species. It’s imperative that he is alert and aware of his surroundings. Sudden movements are likely to startle him. He can become aggressive if he feels threatened. That’s when he’s most likely to spit and kick, a trait that the alpaca shares with the llama. Luckily, he often displays warning signs first.
Not unlike a deer, an agitated alpaca will stomp his feet and snort. He may also drool and flare his nostrils. If he looks up at you with his ears to the sides, watch out because he is upset and will show it.
With patient handling, your alpaca will let you pet him. It’s an essential task, given the regular care that he needs. You’ll have better luck starting with his back and moving slowly toward his head. Alpacas are relatively easy to train. It’s essential to build trust with him. Treats are always appreciated, too, to break the ice.
Getting him used to a halter is a crucial first step if you want to take him out of the yard. Fortunately, alpacas will learn this lesson quickly. Surprisingly, you can even housebreak your alpaca. Members of a herd often use a communal area. Your group of animals will likely follow suit, making cleanup more manageable. You can use it as fertilizer in your garden.
Health and Care
One of your toughest challenges when owning either an alpaca or llama is finding a veterinarian who can treat them. Unlike other livestock, there aren’t vaccinations that you need for your pet to get. Your vet can advise you about suitable alternatives. The other primary tasks are toenail trimming, annual shearing, and teeth grinding.
Both alpacas and llama don’t have hooves but two toenails, instead. You can use pruning shears to get the job done. The next maintenance task is essential to keep your pet comfortable during the summer. It will also prevent mats. The alpaca has silky, soft fiber, which explains its popularity for clothing. He also produces a lot of it. Fortunately, selling it can help pay for the cost of keeping this herding animal.
While it may sound painful, teeth grinding is sometimes necessary if your alpaca’s teeth are misaligned. Just as the task implies, it involves using an electric grinder, not unlike using a file on your fingernails. You can combine this job with shearing to save you the hassle of restraining your animal. On a side note, a unique feature of alpacas is that their fiber is flame-resistant.
Both camelids are herbivores that will happily munch on hay or grass. You can also give either one a commercial diet to ensure that your alpaca is getting adequate nutrition. Make sure he has plenty of fresh water available at all times, too.
The alpaca is an excellent choice for individuals or families who have enough property to house a group of animals. While they will bond with humans, they also need a few playmates to be happy.
The llama’s history differs from the alpaca. While people raised them primarily for their fiber, the llama also was—and is—a draft and pack animal in the Andes Mountains. That also explains the closer relationship with humans. After all, this lifestyle put humans in more frequent close encounters with this camelid. Llamas were also kept for food.
Like the alpaca, the llama is relatively easy to raise in the proper setting. He’s quite social, too. While people often kept them as herding animals, the other jobs that the llama took on fostered an independent streak in him. Because of his size, he also makes an excellent guardian for smaller livestock, such as sheep. A coyote will learn quickly to avoid a flock with a llama on watch.
His close relationship with humans has brought out the llama’s gentle nature. While he prefers the company of his own kind, he’ll do well on his own or with another llama. Like the alpaca, llamas also have worked as therapy animals. In many ways, the two are similar in temperament because of their shared genetic history.
Both animals exhibit the same behavior with screaming or humming if they get upset—or his load is too heavy. The llama is an alert animal, especially when he’s on guard. He’ll show his fearless side by not backing down from a threat. With early socialization, they will form strong bonds with their owners. That’s part of what makes them an excellent choice for an FFA or 4H project.
Like the alpaca, the llama is easy to train. You may find that he’s a wee bit shy when you first get them. It’s the instinctive wariness of an animal that is also a prey species. Once he warms up to you, he’ll approach you for attention. The key is consistency, coupled with some well-earned treats. The other thing to know is that the llama has a stubborn streak.
If there’s something he doesn’t want to do, he simply will refuse to act. Like the alpaca, he will express his displeasure with kicking and spitting if provoked. Positive reinforcement and gentle handling are the best ways to approach training.
Health and Care
Both alpacas and llamas are hardy animals, if just because of the conditions of their respective native lands. They are both relatively cold-tolerant. Heat is often more of an issue with these camelids. That’s why it’s imperative to provide a shelter for your animals to protect them from the elements. The llama is also a herbivore. However, neither he nor the alpaca are ruminants like cows.
Taking care of a llama is quite similar to that of an alpaca. The primary differences are in the size of the animals and their coat. The llama has less hair around his face with a thick, double coat instead of the alpaca’s soft fleece. Toenail trimming, shearing, and teeth grinding are all necessary tasks with a llama, too. He also has a longer lifespan, which is another factor to consider.
Individuals or families with at least an acre of land for a llama or two will find owning this animal a rewarding experience. Because of his size, he’s better suited for older children than a youngster.
Which Species Is Right for You?
As you’ve seen, the alpaca and llama are quite similar animals. The question of which is right for you boils down to space. Alpacas prefer being in groups, whereas a llama will do well on his own or with a mate. Both require a fenced-in yard with a shelter. They eat similar foods and have the same basic needs and maintenance.
Perhaps, the main consideration is the fiber. You might find a buyer for a llama’s wool, but you’ll fetch a better price with an alpaca. If you’re taking your animal to a professional shearer, you’ll probably find plenty of leads on selling. Either camelid will make an excellent pet for a child with an interest in livestock and agriculture. You’ll also get a lawn mowing service and fertilizer for your garden.
Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts’ knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.