Granted, many people would not consider llamas as pets in the traditional sense. Strictly speaking, they would more likely be considered livestock, but they are friendly, social, calm and easily trained. Let's not forget how beautiful they are - they are dignified and agile, and have beautiful deep brown eyes and long eyelashes. Many times llama ownership arises from a case of "love at first sight." Of course, they are not for everyone, and given their size and needs, are only appropriate for those with enough room to house them, and they should not be kept singly.
Llamas are social animals. If properly socialized, they can make a very calm, gentle companion. They have a reputation for spitting, but this is more typical between llamas and usually not directed at people (unless poorly socialized). They also make a variety of sounds. Life span estimates range from 15-30 years. They are not small animals, weighing in at 250-450 lb., and being anywhere from 5' to 6"5' tall (36" to 47" at the shoulder).
Introduction to the Care of Llamas
Nutritional requirements and information on feeding are available on the LlamaOrg site. They can be fed on pasture as long as it is free from poisonous plants (as for cattle, sheep). Hay and complete rations are also acceptable. The type of feed available and what should be fed will vary by area. Also, supplementation with vitamins and mineral will depend on the area, and is best discussed with a veterinarian or agriculture extension specialist.
Ample fresh water is absolutely essential at all times.
As for housing, the amount and type of shelter is also dependent on the climate - in cold climates a barn or other windproof housing may be necessary, while in warmer climates, a three-sided shelter would likely do the trick. In really hot areas, a roofed area with open sides is more effective to allow cooling air flow.
Proper fencing is also necessary, to keep llamas in and (preferably) dogs out. The complexity of the fence depends on your situation; for example the number of llamas and how important it is to keep them separate. Llamas do need a companion - another llama of similar age is best (and unless you want a breeding farm, the same sex too!).
As for maintenance and health care, they do need grooming and shearing, as well as toe nail trimming. They are pretty hardy, but should have a vaccine schedule designed by a veterinarian based on potential disease threats in the area (a run down on the vaccines which should be considered is available on the Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital site). The vet corner on the Shagbark Ridge Llamas site gives an alphabetical listing of health concerns. This list is very thorough, making it look like llamas are prone to lots of ills, but in general they are quite hardy, and do well as long as veterinary care is sought early on if something does go wrong. Remember though, that regular veterinary care will be required and may be expensive if health problems arise.
The llama must be one of the most versatile animals around. Not only are they nice companions, they have a multitude of uses, some a little surprising.
Llamas have been used for packing in South America for centuries. They are naturals, taking little training, and their agility and calm nature makes them excellent companions on even the wildest terrain. An added bonus, their feet have soft, leathery pads which aids in their footing but also does little damage to vegetation on the trail. As an extension of their natural packing ability, gentle nature and soft treads, llamas are even used as golf caddies! Given how much they are able to pack, a couple of golf bags isn't much to a llama.
- The Backcountry Llama - an informative blog including equipment information, suggested trips, events, packing trial information, and more articles.
Carting is a bit more of a challenge, but with the right equipment it is apparently not difficult to teach a llama to pull a cart.
Pony carts do not work well physically with llamas, so getting a cart designed specifically for llamas will make carting successful and enjoyable. Cart racing is becoming a popular activity.
Guard Animals for Sheep
Another extension of the llama's nature, they can act as a guard/sentry for sheep and other livestock. They can fend off a lone dog or coyote, and their alarm calls will alert owners to problems. It is very important to remember, though, a llama can't do much to protect against a pack of dogs or larger predators like bears or cougars.
- PDF version of Iowa State University Study on llamas as guards against coyotes.
Another great use for llamas, they produce lots of fiber which can be make into yarn. It comes in a variety of grades, varying in quality (fineness) between animals and between different areas on the animal.
Shows, Parades, 4-H
Llamas do well with kids, and are becoming increasingly common as 4-H projects - not only are they gentle and easy to handle, they don't end up at the slaughter house. Their calm nature makes them great in parades and public appearances, not to mention that they are attractive crowd pleasers. The llama show circuit is growing as well, with many different classes, as well as trials based on athletic abilities. They are even being used in animal assisted therapy, where animals are taken to retirement homes and hospitals to reach out to residents/patients.
- Llamas, Youth, and 4-H - why llamas can make good 4-H projects for youth.
The merits of llamas as companions has already been discussed - given socialization and attention they are friendly and responsive. Many say they generally seem to relate well to children. Although not a great choice for young children due to their size, older children often do well with llamas.
Llamas are not for everyone, and certainly require a significant commitment of time and finances (and space) to properly care for them. But I think most llama owners agree that they are amazing animals, and most are hooked on llamas from their first contact.