Come the wintry days of December, what’s a reindeer to do? With satellite dishes scanning the skies and security guards monitoring the borders, Santa’s sleigh presents something of a zoonotic biohazard.
But Palouse reindeer — as well as llamas, alpacas and camels — have a passport to safe holiday travel thanks to the camelid medical and infectious disease team at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
Stacey Byers, resident in agricultural animal medicine at CVM, specializes in the care of camelids and cervids — animals in the camel and deer families respectively. She is one of a growing number of veterinarians electing to treat species in the emerging niche of “companion livestock,” which Byers describes as farm animals people keep for pets.
Ranging from goats and potbelly pigs to llamas and reindeer, the current favorite is the alpaca — similar to a small llama and prized for its high quality hair or “fiber.
“Owners are usually on a first-name basis with these types of animals,” Byers said. “There is a closeness associated with it. People interact with them daily and know all of their individual quirks.”
“The majority of these owners are from an urban or suburban background,” added Jim Evermann, professor of infectious disease in CVM. “They are interested in pursuing more medical therapies (when their animal becomes ill) than traditional livestock owners.”
Leading the pack
The evolution of companion livestock has resulted in a steep learning curve for both owners and veterinarians, Evermann said. “Veterinarians who have been out in practice for 10-20 years are learning a new culture. The movement is impacting veterinary education and curriculum, as well as outreach programs, in a positive way,” he said.
Byers said WSU had a head start in the companion livestock arena due to the foresight of team members Steve Parish, professor, and George Barrington, associate professor, in agricultural animal medicine and surgery.
“They recognized the cultural shift early on — looking at diseases like immunodeficiency syndrome of juvenile llamas 10 years ago,” she said. Ahmed Tibary, associate professor, helped round out the group by specializing in camelid reproduction.
Over time, the team has gained a reputation for excellence and accepts a wide range of clinical cases — such as Walter, a camel from California who recently was transported to WSU for an MRI exam and jaw surgery.
But the alpaca tops the popularity list for companion livestock ownership. Unlike llamas, they are not used as beasts of burden but are valued for their fine fiber used to make sweaters, scarves, hats and more. Despite their fuzzy, friendly faces, alpacas are herd animals and tend to be independent and aloof, Evermann said.
Alpaca owners are congregated in New England, Ohio and the Pacific Northwest — three areas with veterinary colleges, such as WSU, that can provide up-to-date expertise in health care.
Much like the dog-show circuit, alpacas frequently are taken on the road for breeding, shows and the sales ring. In order to transport their animals, owners must comply with state veterinary health regulations.
Alpacas have characteristics similar to both cattle and horses and require a combination of vaccinations and worming in order to qualify for an interstate health certificate.
They must also be screened for disease — including one of great concern to owners and veterinarians called bovine viral diarrhea virus or BVDV.
There are many unknowns about camelid BVDV despite the fact that it shows some similarities to the disease in cattle.
For one thing, no one is sure how it is transmitted. Crias infected during pregnancy may become chronic carriers of the disease — showing ill-thrift, immunosuppression and susceptibility to respiratory disease.
“It can be devastating to the breeders not only from the loss of livestock, but also from the loss of reputation,” said Byers.
She and Evermann are conducting studies to try to identify which body fluids transmit the virus. Byers said they aren’t sure if this is an interspecies infection — spread between cattle and alpacas — or if it is a virus unique to the camelids.
“If it is a unique virus, we need to start thinking about creating a vaccine,” she said. “But if it is spreading from cattle, we can handle it with quarantines … and other biocontainment measures.”
Camelid carol (To the tune of “My Favorite Things”)
Reindeer on rooftops and mule deer in thickets,
Camels in Pullman, bright alpaca mittens,
Llamas that carry your shopping bags home
All full of sweaters and fresh Cougar Gold …