Thursday, January 21, 2010

Goodbye Snowflake

So on New Years Eve I definitely had a good feeling that this year would be blessed, fruitful and joyful at Ashton Stone Alpacas. We have had a rough couple of years, not particularly on our farm, but in our lives in general and I am hoping that 2010 will be our year. So far, the year has not started out in the joyous mood I had hoped for. The first alpaca we ever purchased, Snowflake passed away early this morning. This is the first alpaca we have had pass away since we started our farm over 3 years ago and it was a very sad occasion. I am going to attempt to document everything that happened with her over the last few weeks in this blog in case it may help someone else in the future.

A few weeks ago, during New Years weekend, Snowflake started acting different than normal.
During New Years night (Friday) into the next morning (Saturday), the temperature outside dropped drastically and got down to 6 degrees overnight on our farm. When the temps drop this low, we normally shut the alpacas in the barn to keep them out of the wind and precipitation. We hadn't realized that it was going to get that cold that night and failed to put the alpacas in the barn. I came out to the barn Saturday morning to feed the alpacas. Everyone ran into the larger part of the barn where we feed them pellets except for Snowflake. She has been with us for a few years now, given us two cria and has always been healthy, but always a little tired looking. Snowflake was kushed in the doorway looking outside and was slow to get up and eat. Instead of running in like normal, she just stood over the poo pile for awhile, then she went back and laid down. I noticed right away that she was shivering, so I put a llama coat on her and went in the house. I shut everyone in the barn and came out a little while later to check on her and she was still kushing and shivering. Normally, hypothermia is not something to worry about with healthy adult alpacas. Crias and older alpacas are more prone to it. Snowflake was young (only 3 1/2), was not really underweight at the time (her body score is slightly thin, but not by much), and she had decent staple length and density. She was almost 4 months pregnant at the time and was still nursing her 5 month old cria occasionally, but these shouldn't have taken too much energy out of her. I decided it was time to take action as she wasn't seeming to warm up now that she was out of the wind and had a coat on. I took her temp which was only 96 degrees (normal alpaca temps range from 99-101 degrees), so I wrapped her in a heated blanket and cranked it up which she seemed to like. She was lethargic and did not want to eat or drink all day. We cleaned the whole barn out that afternoon and put a half dozen bales of fresh straw down, nice and thick, in the alpacas stalls. We also gave her and all our crias some vitamin ADEB12 paste. We kept the heated blanket on her most of the day, but only got her temp up to 98.8 degrees by bedtime.

On Sunday morning, I went out to the barn to find Snowflake in a worse condition than the day before. She was kushing with her coat on and shivering. Her head was hung low, she was listless, and her eyes were cloudy and not bright like normal. Noah was working and I could not get her to stand up on my own. Normally she hates to be touched and is a fighter, but she was unresponsive to my prods and pokes. I took her temperature and it was 95.0 degrees. I knew I had to take action fast. After a few minutes of lifting her back end up off the ground, she finally stood up. I felt some relief at this! I was alone and knew I needed to get this girl warmed up fast so I took drastic measure; I put a halter on her and led her across the yard and into the warm house. She was pretty lethargic and didn't put up a fight like she normally would if I had her on a halter and was leading her away from the herd. I coaxed her through the back slider door and into the kitchen, where she had a difficult time not slipping on the linoleum floor. Originally I put rugs, blankets and towels down for her to walk and kush on so she would not slip and so she would not have to lay on the hard cold floor, but later swapped them out for a foam puzzle mat floor which worked much better. Snowflake kushed and I started piling warm blankets from the dryer over her. She was so calm compared to her normal self and let me treat her with no complaint. I put warm water, hay and pellets out for her, but she didn't touch any of them. I was starting to worry that she had probably not eaten anything since the Friday before at least. Alpacas are ruminants, meaning they use bacteria in their gut to digest food. If alpacas go too long without eating, their bacteria in their gut can die off and they could starve because they are unable to digest their food. Here is a picture of Snowy in the kitchen before I put the puzzle mats down. Eventually, I also put panels up too to keep her and dogs separated.

Noah came home to help out with her in the afternoon. We syringed warm pedialyte into her because she was probably dehydrated. We also gave her some Vitipaste. I did a lot of research online trying to figure out how to treat Snowflake. Most things I found only dealt with hypothermic crias or how to prevent hypothermia. There wasn't a whole lot out there on how to treat an adult alpaca with hypothermia. I decided to call our vet. On the weekends and evenings they always have a small and large animal vet on call at West Michigan Vet Services, which is great! Although, I wasn't able to talk with our normal alpaca vet, Dr. Meyers, a really great large animal vet, Dr. John Schelling called me back. He said the most important thing was to get her warm and get sugar in her. He recommended warm blankets and warm water bottles and to drizzle 30-60 cc of corn syrup behind her back molars every couple of hours. He also recommended giving her 1-2 cc of BO-SE in case her symptoms were due to a selenium deficiency (although he thought that was probably not the case, but said it wouldn't hurt). He also suggested using Nutri Drench for nutrients (which our local Family Farm and Home did not carry) and 3-5 cc of vitamin B complex injections daily to increase her appetite (which FFH did carry). We followed his instructions as best we could and put warm rice packs under her belly and chest. I also massaged her, hoping to get the blood flowing and to help her from getting stiff. Our friends at Oak Haven Alpacas stopped by and helped us out with treating Snowflake too. Thanks guys for all your help!

By Monday afternoon, we finally had her temp close to 100 degrees. We decided to try putting her back out in the barn, hoping it would encourage her to eat. Throughout this whole process, Snowflake continued to pee and pooed normal looking beans a few times, although a lot less than she normally does. On Monday, I took her beans in to have a fecal sample run. Parasite counts are normally very low in the winter and not something you usually have to worry a whole lot about this time of year. It came back with only one strongyle parasite detected, which is a very low number. They recommended we treat it with panacur/safe guard, even though the count was so low. Noah and I decided to wait to treat it until we could talk with our regular alpaca vet about it as there is some controversy as to whether panacur/safe guard is really that affective against parasites in alpacas. Unfortunately, our normal vet was on vacation for the next two weeks, so I made an appointment for her to come out to the farm as soon as she got back so we could draw blood and have a blood panel run to see if there was something more going on with Snowflake.

Snowflake still didn't seem to be eating and by noon on Tuesday, her temp was back down to 97 degrees so I brought her back into the kitchen and repeated the warming process. Her temp came back fairly quickly and was 99 by evening. We decided that she really needed to start eating so she could maintain her temp. We made a sort of soup with fresh alpaca spit and warm water (harvesting alpaca spit is not a fun involves putting a sock over a grumpy alpacas muzzle and making it angry by poking it here and there until it brings up gooey stinky green stomach matter and spits it into the sock for you). We also gave Snowflake pro biotic paste and plain yogurt. All of these things are to help replenish the micro organisms in her stomach that are necessary for digestion. As gross as the spit soup seemed to jump start Snowy and she would begin eating instantly after drinking it. I am not sure if it gave her the munchies or if she just wanted that horrible taste out of her mouth, but it got her eating.

By Wednesday afternoon, Snowflake seemed back to normal. She was alert and her eyes were bright. She was becoming more active and was not happy to be locked inside with the humans and dogs and appeared anxious to get back out in the barn. She was maintaining a body temp of 101 degrees. She was eating and drinking. We put her back out in the barn with her llama coat on and she did very well.

I very much wish that the story ended here with this happy ending. At the time, I thought it had. At the time, I thought we were only dealing with a strange case of hypothermia. We still planned on getting the blood panel run to see if there were any other underlying issues as alpacas tend to be very healthy and hearty creatures, but at the time things seemed to be looking up. A week and a half passed by with Snowflake continuing to act normally. Her temp was good and she was eating and relieving herself and even nursing her cria Jolie.

Then last Sunday, exactly two weeks after I had brought Snowflake in the house for the first time, I noticed that Snowflake again did not come in to eat grain in the morning and seemed to have white foam around her lips. Alpacas will occasionally get foamy, usually from eating clover, and we do have some clover in our hay, so I didn't think too much into it at the time. Even though she didn't eat, she still seemed very alert and was walking around.

On Monday morning, I started to get an uneasy feeling as she still did not come in to eat with the rest of the alpacas and still had white foam around her lips. We took her temperature and it was 102 degrees which is a little high, but better than being too low I supposed at the time.

On Tuesday morning, still no eating and foam at the mouth. She appeared more lethargic. I came home in the morning to check on her after a meeting and found her kushed out in the pasture by herself. I took her temp and it was 96 degrees so I brought her back in the kitchen and started the original treatment again. We also started treating with panacur for the parasite. This time, Snowflake was more alert and active than the first time, but she still wasn't eating and we had a more difficult time getting her temp to come up. This time, she also did not pee or poo, even though we brought a disk sled in with some poo and put it in the corner in case she needed a pile to go (we did this the first time too and it worked then). The only thing she did seem to do was drink water and foam at the mouth. We had a vet appointment for Friday, but I called the vet's office to see if our vet could come out any sooner to check her out and draw blood, unfortunately our vet was already booked all week.

By late Wednesday morning, Snowflake was really seeming uncomfortable. She was humming more and kicking her legs out and leaning to the side. She would also turn her neck around and look at her stomach/back end (they often do this when they are in labor and I wondered if she was possibly aborting her 4 month old cria because of all the stress). I called the vet again and asked if we could bring her in. We bundled her up in warm blankets and lots of stray in the trailer and drove her 40 mins to the vet's office. Our vet was out of the office that day, so we saw an equine vet who used to treat alpacas and llamas. Snowflake was not herself at the vet's office and just stayed kushed throughout the exams. Her heart and lungs sounded good (the vet was worried that she could have gotten fluid in her lungs from the first time she was ill when we were drenching her aka putting liquids down her throat with a syringe, but her lungs sounded clear). The vet could not detect any gut sounds, which meant that she hadn't eaten recently and her micro organisms were not working to digest anything. Her eyes looked good and dilated normally. Her gums appeared hydrated, but a little yellow. The vet said he he didn't know what color her gums normally looked, but the yellow could be a symptom of something wrong with her liver. Her said that her thyroid appeared to be operating normally. Her abdomen was not hard, which meant that she didn't have any major blockages. The vet took blood for the blood panel (which took a few times as alpacas are one of the most difficult animals to draw blood on and this vet didn't really work with alpacas anymore). He also gave her 4 cc of Vitamin C, 2cc of Banamine for pain, a dose of gastroguard to treat/prevent ulcers that could be created from some of the meds, and 2.5 cc of an antibiotic called Naxel in case she had an infection (which apparently stung horribly when administered SQ because she began rolling around and stretching her front legs in front of her...the vet said he had witnessed horses have the same reaction). In addition to sending us home with some of these meds, he also gave us Nutra Drench for goats/sheep ( a molasses like substance with sugar and nutrients in it) and told us to continue with the meds and using warm blankets and karo syrup to warm her up as her temp at the vets was only 96 degrees. The vet decided that she seemed alert enough to not hospitalize or place an IV in her. He said that the blood results would hopefully be back by the time our normal vet came out on Friday. It felt good to have a plan in place of what to do next. Snowflake seemed to do better for a few hours after she got the painkiller and wasn't so restless. Unfortunately, by Wednesday night, Snowflake became more uncomfortable. We couldn't even keep the warm blankets on her as she was constantly rolling on her side. I felt so horrible seeing her in pain.

Noah gets up at 4:00am for work. He got up at this time this morning and came to tell me that Snowflake was not doing well and he didn't think she was going to make it. I could hear her rolling around in the kitchen and occasionally moaning. I have had so much happen in the last year; I could not bring myself to go into the kitchen and see her in pain. I called the on-call vet at our vets office. He was very understanding at 4 in the morning and told us to give her some banamine for pain and he said he would get to the vets office early and meet us at 7am. I also called the large animal emergency hospital at Michigan State University to see about bringing her there. A very sleepy sounding vet answered the phone and said that we could bring her, but it would be "$300 to walk through the door and at least another $2000-$2500 to treat her." We decided to bring her into our vets office as the on-call vet was going to try and see if he could get the alpaca vet in early too. Noah and I were unsure of how we were going to get her into the trailer since he couldn't get her to stand up. Then, around 5:15am, she stood up on her own, but was very wobbly on her legs. She stood up for a while and then laid back down and started rolling on her side again. I was very distraught and hated to hear her in pain. At around 5:40am, she started making a really loud moaning sound. Noah came to tell me that her breathing was shallow and that he thought she was dying. At that point I was sitting on our bathroom floor praying. Noah went back to be with Snowflake. A few minutes later, he returned to the bathroom shaking his head at which point I burst into tears. Noah, Roz, Lola and I all sat together on the bathroom floor for awhile. The dogs seemed to sense our distress and they tried to comfort us. Noah said that Snowflake's breathing became labored and she started regurgitating green bile. He lifted her head because she seemed to be choking and then she just stopped breathing. It was very sad, but I felt relieved at the same time that she was no longer in pain. We called the on-call vet back and let him know he didn't need to meet us early. Once the normal business hours opened at the clinic, I called and schedule a necropsy that morning with our normal alpaca vet, Dr. Meyers. The vet from MSU called back and talked with Noah for awhile. He kept saying he thought it was meningeal worm or stomach ulcers. I knew she had no symptoms of meningeal worm. Noah loaded her in the trailer (he swore all the other alpacas were staring at him as he did it) and I finally felt brave enough to peak at her. My poor first little baby! I was sad that she was gone....I was sad that she left her 5 month old cria Jolie an orphan.....and I was sad that we would never meet the little 4 month old baby that was inside of her.

As we drove to the vet, we contemplated what could have happened to our Snowflake. She had lost a lot of weight in the last few weeks. We were so confused as to why she was better for a few weeks...and then became ill again. I kept running over all the things I had read online....stomach ulcers, parasites, selenium deficiency, tape worm, leukemia, liver problems, thyroid, intestinal blockage. I was desperately hoping that the necropsy would show something big...something unavoidable and untreatable. I felt like I had done so much for Snowy, but it still wasn't enough. I felt like if it was unavoidable and untreatable....I wouldn't feel like a failure. My worst fear was that it was something minor that could have been easily treated. As we got closer to the vets office, Noah and I started daydreaming out loud....we both feel like our lives have become very heavy with stuff....that's the best way I can put it I guess....we talked about selling everything but our two danes and traveling the world. No more responsibility. No more chores. No more worries. No more heartache. The more we talked about it, the better it sounded to me. In that moment, I decided that I wanted to get rid of everything and begin the nomadic lifestyle. Maybe I was just in shock...or maybe I was trying to escape. We later joked that with our luck, we would get rid of everything and become vagabonds and something bad would still somehow, you can never really escape real life and the stress that comes with it. Anyway, once we pulled into the vets office, I stayed in the truck as they unloaded Snowflake. Once they whisked her away, Noah and I met with Dr. Meyers to relay the whole story and all of Snowflake's symptoms. The other vet we had met with the day before felt really bad about her passing away and said that he was sure that she was "not at death's door yesterday." We thanked him for all he did and assured him that she progressively got worse through the night. Dr. Meyers said she had had a similar case in a llama a few weeks ago and it's intestines had stopped working because it was filled with tumors...but she commented that this was an elderly llama, and Snowflake seemed young to have tumors. We asked her if she would be able to tell the sex and color of the cria. She said that she would probably be able to tell the sex, but not the color yet. Noah and I went across the street to McDonald's to have brunch while we waited as I had not eaten for two days due to all the stress.

After brunch, we came back and met with Dr. Meyers. We don't have the written necropsy report yet or the results from the blood, tissue and fecal samples yet, but hear is what Dr. Meyer's verbally told us.

Snowflake died from liver failure. Her liver was discolored and hard. Dr. Meyer's said that it looked like this issue had been "cooking" for awhile, meaning it was not something that came on suddenly. She said that it was not Fatty Liver, which can be caused from malnutrician, because the samples did not float. She was unsure of the cause of the liver failure, but said that it probably was not bacterial. She also said that the liver failure probably had nothing to do with the cold and her low body temp. She said it could be caused from a toxin, but suspected it was not since all of our alpacas eat the same thing and everyone else is doing fine. She took samples of the tissue to send into the lab for further analysis. Dr. Meyers said, that most likely, giving Snowflake all the meds yesterday sped up the dying process as her liver was probably unable to process all the medication. The bad liver is what caused her gums to look yellow. Doctor Meyers assured us that even if we did detect a bad liver with a blood test weeks ago, there is probably not a whole lot we could have done to repair the liver. At least I got my wish of something apparently unavoidable and untreatable.

Here is information from the rest of the necropsy. Snowflake's heart looked good. No holes and the valves appeared in working order. She said the left side may have been slightly enlarged. She said that she found a very strange thing in the tissue around the heart. It was full of lots of tiny hemorrhages. She, nor several other vets who came to inspect the strange phenomenon had ever seen anything like it. She said that it is not what killed Snowflake and it could have been a reaction to all the meds that her liver was unable to process. She took a sample of this tissue also to send into the lab.

Snowflakes esophagus looked good, but was filled with bile and food matter from regurgitating upon dying. Her stomach looked good with no ulcers. There was still rumin and food matter in the stomach and it was still wet, not dried out, which meant her gut was still working. Her intestines all looked good with no blockages and even some beans in them, which they took to run a fecal test. Even through she was underweight and had no fat left on her, her udder looked good and was still producing milk.

Dr. Meyers said that Snowflake was in fact pregnant and that it was a little boy. She asked if we wanted to see the cria and said that he was adorable. We decided that we did want to see him and she brought him out on a paper towel. I wish now that we thought to take a picture of him. He was about 8 or 10 inches long. He looked exactly like a minature naked alpaca which I didn't really expect. He had a long skinny neck which led to an oversized head with little lips and nose and large bulgy eyes. He had little ears and a little tail and of course a tiny penis. His legs were long, but very thing, like coffee stir sticks and he had tiny toes and nails on the end of each foot. He really was very cute. Dr. Meyers said that he normally would have been pink, but he was sort of a purple color now. I felt bad for the little guys and Noah and I decided to name him JR (Snowflakes other two cria are named Jolly Roger and Jolie Rouge).

We had the option of bringing the remains home (which we were unsure of how we would dig a large hole in the frozen ground), having the dump pick the remains up, or having Snowflake cremated. We decided to have the remains cremated, even though it was a little more expensive; I could never live with the thought of her being buried in a dump.

Now we are just awaiting the results of the blood test, fecal test, liver tissue sample and heart tissue sample. Hopefully they will give us some answers as to why our girl Snowflake passed away so early in life from liver failure. The necropsy has already given us peace of mind and told us that whatever happened to Snowflake, it is unlikely that it is something that would affect our other alpacas.
Despite the adversity we have been faced with over the last year, we are trying to remember that we chose this path and that the times of joy would not be so wonderful if it weren't for the times of sorrow. Goodbye Snowflake. You were a great alpaca. We will miss you!


EEMedley said...

Awww. How sad guys! Im really sorry for your loss! Everything will turn out okay, and you have lost of lil babes to look forward to! :)

Noah and Jillian Schwander said...

Thanks for the encouraging words Erin! I really appreciate them! I am praying for lots of healthy babies this year!

Tamara said...

I am so sorry for your loss. We are thinking of you. The Attal Family

Anonymous said...

We have just experienced a similar incident with our girl, Willow. Also young and pregnant, also wouldn't eat like normal. I learned you should never have to say to an alpaca," C'mon now sweetie, eat..." that is a first indicator. I had noticed that she looked sunken in her flanks and her fleece was looking a bit dull for her. She kept looking at us with her ears back and down-definitely not the look she had when she wanted grain. We only had a field necropsy done as it turned out my partner was too emotional to deal with the situation. I thought that since he was a hunter in his earlier years this would not be an issue, but the vet said that actually men that have attachments to their animals tend to be more emotional about necropsies (spelling, I know). Anyway, the liver was yellow/green and hard as a rock. It was not rounded or ballooning-had all its points. she also had a few beans and the stomach appeared normal. We followed the banamine treatment that you did as well, but did put Willow on a solution for hydration. I would like to hear more of results on the blood draw as we certainly do not ever want to repeat this in our herd either. If you are interested in talking, we are Gnarlywood Alpacas at I would be grateful beyond words.
My heartfelt sympathies are with you, Laurie