Thursday, September 20, 2012

Of Llamas and Cats

Few newborns are more endearing than kittens and crias.

(Courtesy of 

In the case of kittens, they're the perfect size for snuggling and endlessly entertaining when they reach the pounce and play stage. One kitten is great fun, two or more is a party of climbing, hide and seek and wrestling. Toes under blankets need beware when a kitten's on the prowl.

(Courtesy of

Crias, the young of alpacas and llamas, are also endearing. Gaining their legs within minutes of birth, their upright posture and the way they seem to march forward always reminds me of toy soldiers. How could you not want to cuddle something warm and woolly and curious that looks like a stuffed animal come to life?


Well, part of it anyway. Kittens and crias are such adorable youngsters that when they happen to be orphaned human caretakers tend to step in to save them, and then some. It's the 'and then some' that gets us into trouble.

In the case of kittens, many rescuers bottle feed and raise them to adulthood, completely unaware of the potential for danger. I've lost count of the number of adult cats I've seen in the exam room who were screaming, spitting, hissing terrors whose owners, sporting well-scratched arms and legs, have said something like, "I don't understand it. I raised her from 3 days old..." And now the very pet they've nursed and loved attacks them at home without noticeable warning and looks at me with something akin to murderous intent.

Similarly, hand-reared llamas can become so aggressive to people that there's a term for it, "Berzerk Male Syndrome". Despite the name, bottle-fed females can also develop aggression toward humans but usually limit their acting out to spitting and being generally difficult to handle. Berzerk males on the other hand are out to kill.

What's going on with these rescue cases?

Current thought is that the young animals imprint on their human caretakers, never developing a respect for human boundaries. It's not so much because of the bottle-feeding as it is the cuddling and handling that often accompanies it and isolation from others of the same species.

Male llamas by nature are territorial and aggressive in their defense of space and resources. If they perceive humans as "equals" because they've been hand-raised, when puberty hits people become the competition. Humans lose every time.

Although I'm not aware of any formal studies regarding hand-raised orphan kittens I've seen the results often enough to suspect something similar occurs in their little feline brains. Many cats are significantly less than delighted to be to be interrupted in their napping, placed in a carrier and driven a few miles to a strange-smelling veterinary clinic. Some will hide, some grumble a bit and the occasional patient complains loudly at a temperature taking or other invasion of personal space. In most cases there's an obvious reason for the fearfulness or complaint and I'm accustomed to working quickly and quietly to make their visit as stress-free as possible. And then there are the special cases who don't need any provocation to attack at home or in the exam room. Often when I ask, they've been hand raised alone by a doting owner, never learning to interact with other cats or other people properly.

The Solution
Ideally we wouldn't have orphans to raise, but barring the impossible there are some steps to take.

Alpaca and llama breeders are, (or should be), aware of the risks involved and take steps to raise their orphans with other llamas and discourage any playful nibbling, bumping, rearing and in-your-face behavior which seems cute in a little one but could be a prelude to trouble.

Orphaned kittens can be a little more challenging to properly socialize but every attempt should be made to find another cat to "mother" the baby, even if it  means bottle-feeding but placing the kitten elsewhere for his own good. If another cat nursing kittens can't be found, neutered adult males often make great uncles, tolerating a kitten's playfulness while teaching him his manners. And you can always call your veterinarian for ideas, most of us have a soft spot for small bundles of fur...

No comments:

Post a Comment