A Taste of Life at Windrush Alpacas

April 23, 2009

Tragedy of the Shortage of Large Animal Vets



Moonie in happier times

Moonie in happier times


This post is a difficult one to write, and if you love animals it will be difficult to read, but what happened here on the farm on Monday is one example of the consequences of a national shortage of large animal vets


On Sunday afternoon one of our herdsires Moonlight Surprise (Moonie) had a seizure.  Just before I went out to do afternoon chores I noticed a commotion in the adult males pen.  I thought they were just doing the usual wrestling and chasing, but then I realized something was wrong. 


I could see Moonie getting up and then being picked on by the other males, they were chest butting him and chasing him away from the male herd.  While the male alpacas do fight and squabble this was different, the other males were making a concerted effort to ostracize Moonie from the herd. 


As I watched I noticed Moonie was also running strangely with his neck straight out, he was following the fence line and there was something very odd about his behavior.


I went out and caught Moonie and realized that something was affecting his vision.  I prepared a small pen in the area where the younger males are and took Moonie over to that pen.  Moonie wasn’t blind, he had some limited vision allowing him to see things when he got close up to them, but his vision was not normal.


Moonie was distressed about his condition, his nostrils were flaring and he was unsettled.  I gave him some Bach’s Rescue Remedy and then showed him where the water and hay were in the pen.  I took his temperature which was 99.5 a little low but not terribly concerning.  A while later Moonie had another seizure, his body contracted pulling his neck to the right, followed by trembling of his head and rapid movement of his eye lids, he staggered as the seizure progressed.  As the seizure continued I did my best to make sure he didn’t hurt himself by falling against anything.  As Moonie came out of the seizure I could tell his vision had been affected again.  Moonie started following the fence line, walking round and round the pen.


This was not the first time we had known Moonie to have a seizure, about two years ago Moonie had been seen to have one.  He was in quarantine following a show at the farm of our alpaca neighbors Bob and Regina Dart.  Following shows we often quarantine our show string together.  It means that one farm can quarantine the boys and the other farm quarantine the girls often avoiding the situation where one alpaca is quarantined alone.  When Moonie had his first seizure the quarantine period had passed but we had not picked our alpacas up from the Darts farm.  That seizure was small and was followed by another about a week later.  Our vet examined Moonie and run some bloodwork on him but there were no clues as to why Moonie had those first two seizures.   Now two years later Moonie was having seizures again.


Being Sunday night our vet was not available, by the time nightfall came Moonie had calmed down and was quietly cushed in his pen.  He was not drinking any water or eating hay, but he did nibble on some pellets we put in his pen.


Monday morning came and Moonie was comfortably cushed in his pen.  We saw him get up and go to the poop pile and then again start eating the pellets in his bowl.  He seemed more alert and almost back to normal, but about an hour after we first saw him in the morning he had another seizure.


As soon as the vet clinic was open I called our vet.  Our vet told me that he was unable to come out to our farm that morning, his schedule was already fully booked, but he could see Moonie at 4 p.m. that afternoon.  Listening to my description of Moonie’s condition he was puzzled as to what could be going on with Moonie, but of course it is very difficult to diagnose a condition over the phone. 


By the time I spoke to our vet Moonie was going around and around in circles around his hay bucket, always circling to the right.  Moonie had also started alarm calling, indicating his level of distress to be high.  The poor boy couldn’t understand what was happening to him.


Our vet suggested I give Moonie a small dose of Acepromazine and some Thiamine to try and help Moonie remain stable and calm until the afternoon appointment.


Moonie was having seizures approximately every hour, the Thiamine did seem to help him and I was optimistic that the vet would be able to treat him later that day.  As the morning progressed though the seizures continued and started to get more severe each time.  As if that was not bad enough our vet then called me to say that he was not going to be able to get away from the client he was with and could not see Moonie that day.  I explained that Moonie was getting worse and asked what I should do, our vet suggested that I call another veterinary practice in Texas to see if they had any vets in our area.  


You might wonder why our vet suggested calling a veterinary practice in a neighboring state, we are after all in an agricultural community with a large number of cattle and horses, but the truth is that the vets who are contracted with the local dairies will not come out to see other clients.  The veterinary practice in Texas was our only other option.


Sadly the veterinary practice in Texas did not have anyone in our area, they offered for us to drive Moonie over to them but by this time Moonie was down and couldn’t get up.    At 2:30 p.m.  Moonie died.


I have had alpacas die before; sadly part of any livestock business is the inevitable death of some of your animals.  With the best care in the world at times things will happen that we cannot fix and animals die.  This death though was the hardest I have had to witness yet, my alpaca was suffering and even when I knew he was dying and tried to get a vet to come out to put him down the response I got was that the area vets were busy and could not help.  It is one thing to lose an alpaca, it is entirely different thing to have to watch that animal suffer in his final moments and not be able to do a thing to ease that suffering.  My only hope is that in those final moments Moonies brain had shut down to where perhaps he wasn’t feeling what was going on.


It is known that there is a national shortage of Large Animal Vets in the United States, a recent article in the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel refers to the problems that shortage presents, not just to livestock owners but also how that shortage could be a threat to national security.  What is worrying is that the situation is only likely to get worse.


Our large animal vet has been looking for another vet to join his practice for well over a year with no luck.  The number of veterinary college graduates who choose to specialize in large animal practice is small.  Trying to find a veterinarian who is of the caliber that our vet desires and who also wants to live in dry and dusty eastern New Mexico is a difficult task. 


I am sure our vet is not happy about the situation with Moonie; it cannot be easy for him to turn down a client with an emergency situation.   Our vet is just one person and if he is already dealing with another client’s emergency he cannot walk away from that emergency until he has completed whatever treatments he needs to administer.  How is he supposed to choose between two clients both urgently needing his services?  On speaking to his wife later in the day she described Monday as “a day from hell”.


Large animal veterinary practice is not a popular choice of career, the hours are long and the conditions are often filthy and demanding.  It takes a special person to be a large animal vet and while at times the job is rewarding that is apparently not enough to persuade people to become a large animal vet.


I wish I had a solution to the shortage of large animal vets in the US, if only to prevent another animal and owner from encountering the situation I did on Monday.  The only thing I can think to do is to sponsor organizations who have a scholarship scheme for veterinary students specializing in large animal practice.  


We do not know what caused Moonie’s seizures; we have submitted his body to the Texas Veterinary Medicine Diagnostic Lab (TVMDL) in Amarillo, Texas for a full necropsy.   We hope that something from that necropsy will shed some light on what was wrong with Moonie, but there is always a chance that the results of the necropsy will be inconclusive.


My heart breaks over the loss of my gentle herdsire Moonie.  He really was one of the gentlest alpacas, his easygoing nature inherited from his dam Carina.    Moonies fleece was very fine and consistent with little guard hair; a trait that is valued in the alpaca world and that made him a valuable part of our breeding program.


We had not used Moonie as much as we would have liked to, he currently has three offspring on the ground with a fourth one due later this spring.  One of his offspring is our Windrush Peruvian Tonka who we lovingly refer to as Little Man.  Ironically when Little Man was born he bore no resemblance to Moonie, but now as he grows his face is strikingly similar to that of his sire.  That similarity will now be part of Moonie’s legacy and in time we hope that Little Man will step in to take over the herdsire career that his sire was unable to complete. 


To my dear Moonie, I hope you understand that I did what I could for you; it was not enough to save you I know, but I don’t know what else I could have done.  I will truly miss you.



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