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Investigator: Dr. Geof Smith

North Carolina State University

Status: Year 1 of 1

What is it? 

    A stomach ulcer is a small hole in the gastrointestinal tract. Scientists don’t completely understand why camelids

develop stomach ulcers, but they suspect that stress is the most common reason.

    Because camelids have multiple stomach chambers, veterinarians have difficulty detecting ulcers in these animals. That makes it hard to determine how common the condition is. However, after studying autopsies of llamas, Dr. Smith believes stomach ulcers are quite common.


How will this study help? 

    Many owners and veterinarians currently treat stomach problems in llamas with the oral form of omeprazole, called GastroGard®, or its generic equivalent. This study revealed that the oral form of this drug is not effective and should not be used. Fortunately, when veterinarians give omeprazole to llamas intravenously, the drug is effective in preventing and treating ulcers.

Co-sponsors: The Alpaca Research Foundation; Michigan International Alpaca Fest (MIAF); Greater Appalachian Llama & Alpaca Association; Llama Association of North America 

FROM Vol 5 Number 4 Morris Animal Foundation Newsletter Dec. 2005


The Acute Abdomen in South American Camelids

David E Anderson, D.V.M., MS, Diplomate ACVS
College of Veterinary Medicine
The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

South American Camelids (llamas, alpacas) may represent a significant financial investment for the owner, but they are viewed most commonly as pets, companions, or valued friends. Veterinarians should be aware of potential life-threatening lesions associated with the acute abdomen (colic). Camelids demonstrate clinical signs of abdominal pain similar to those seen in true-ruminants (depression, recumbency, abnormal posture) and horses (kicking at the abdomen, rolling). Clinicians working with camelids must become familiar with the normal activity, anatomy, physiology, and diseases common to these interesting patients.

Gastrointestinal anatomy - The esophagus enters the first forestomach compartment (C1) where digesta is fermented, eructated, re-swallowed, passed through the second compartment (C2), third compartment (C3), and pylorus into the duodenum. C1 and C2 function as fermentation chambers and absorb water and various nutrients. C1 motility waves travel from caudal to cranial (2 to 4 per minute). The proximal 80% of C3 absorbs water and nutrients; the distal 20% of C3 is acid secretory and performs gastric digestion. The pH changes from 6.5 to 7.0 in C1, C2, and proximal C3 to 2.0 to 3.0 in the distal C3. The duodenum continues as the jejunum and, then, ileum. The ileum enters the large intestine at the cecocolic junction. The cecum is small and the proximal loop of the spiral colon (ascending colon) is long and larger in diameter than the spiral colon. The spiral colon exits into the transverse colon, descending colon, rectum, and anus.

Historical Information - Although young camelids (< 6-mo-old) demonstrate clinical signs of acute abdominal pain (kicking at the abdomen, rolling, thrashing), these signs are less commonly observed in mature animals. Mature camelids demonstrate abdominal pain as restlessness, lying down and getting up frequently, vocalizing, grinding teeth, straining to urinate or defecate, flagging the tail, lying their head and neck flat against the ground or down across their back, and lying in an abnormal cush position. Changes in diet, defecation, urination, and recent activity (transportation, showing, weaning) are critical pieces of information.

Physical Examination - The physical examination should be complete and thorough. Patience is the key. The clinician must differentiate abdominal diseases from those of neurologic or musculoskeletal origin. Physical examination variables in normal adult camelids include: Temp - 37.5 to 38.8 C, heart rate - 60 to 80 beats per minute, respiratory rate - 10 to 30 breaths per minute, and rumination waves - 2 to 4 per minute. Abdominal distention may be evaluated by palpation, simultaneous auscultation/percussion/succussion, and orogastric intubation. The animal's body condition should be evaluated for evidence of chronicity. Digital rectal should be done to determine if feces are present in the rectum. Rectal examination must be performed carefully. Rectal tears have been induced in camelids. The decision to perform rectal palpation may be based on the animal's size and temperament, the palpator's experience, and the expected benefit. I instill 40 ml lubricant and 20 ml 2% lidocaine into the lumen of the rectum and liberally lubricate the rectal sleeve. An epidural may be used to aid examination of anxious patients.

Laboratory Data - Selection of laboratory tests is based on history and the results of physical examination. Our "colic work-up" includes a CBC with differential, fibrinogen, serum electrolytes, glucose, creatinine, BUN, SDH, GGT, and CPK. Unlike cattle, camelids do not usually suffer hypochloremic metabolic alkalosis with intestinal obstruction. This is probably because all three forestomachs are absorptive. However, hypokalemia is commonly found.

Ancillary Diagnostic Tests - Ancillary diagnostic tests are chosen based on history, physical examination findings, and initial laboratory data. The common tests performed include C1 fluid analysis, abdominal ultrasound and radiographs, peritoneal fluid analysis, urinalysis, and fecal examination / flotation / occult blood analysis. Other available procedures include laparoscopy, endoscopy, and positive contrast urethrography. The urinary bladder in males can not be routinely catheterized because of the presence of the urethral recess at the level of the ischial arch.

Indications for Surgery and Differential Diagnoses (see table) - Continuous and intractable pain is an indication for exploratory surgery. However, in my experience, C3 ulcers in crias may be exceptionally painful for up to 48 hours after initiating treatment. Persistent, low-grade discomfort despite supportive therapy is an indication for abdominal exploratory. Temp, heart rate, or respiratory rate have not been reliable indicators of surgical lesions. Abnormal rectal palpation findings are an indication for exploratory surgery. Failure to pass feces for > 24 hours is suggestive of intestinal obstruction. Failure to urinate for > 6 to 8 hours is suggestive of urinary tract obstruction. Ultrasound identification of intestinal or urinary bladder distention is suggestive of intestinal or urethral obstruction, respectively. Exploratory surgery should not be used as a "last resort" to establish a diagnosis. Exploratory celiotomy can be done safely and efficiently when performed early in the progression of the disease. Laparotomy performed as an emergency or in a deteriorating patient is more likely to result in complications or death.

Surgical Approach - Unlike cattle, ventral midline celiotomy with the patient under general anesthesia is the approach of choice for exploratory laparotomy. Paralumbar fossa laparotomy may be useful for nephrectomy, ureteral manipulation, C1 or C3 enterotomy, unilateral ovariectomy. Exploratory celiotomy may be performed after sedation and regional anesthesia, but this procedure is highly discouraged because of the potential for contamination of the abdomen and discomfort to the patient caused by visceral manipulation.

Surgical Diagnosis and Treatment - The most common reason for abdominal surgery in our practice is to perform Cesarian section either because of uterine torsion with poor cervical dilation or severe fetal malposition. Intestinal obstruction is a common cause of surgical gastrointestinal lesions. We have treated digesta impaction of the proximal loop of the spiral colon, enterolith obstruction of the spiral colon, extramural obstruction of the descending colon caused by an umbilical abscess, and post-operative obstructive adhesions with small intestinal strangulation. Impaction of the proximal loop of the spiral colon may be treated by instillation of saline into the mass, message of the impaction, and administration of IV fluids for 48 hours. Enteroliths may be removed via enterotomy. Compromised bowel (strangulation, intussusception) may be treated by resection and end-to-end anastomosis. Umbilical (and rarely inguinal) hernias are occasionally diagnosed in young camelids, but intestinal incarceration or strangulation is uncommon. We perform open herniorrhaphy with appositional closure of the abdominal wall in all patients to ensure that infected umbilical remnants do not remain in the abdomen. Urethral obstruction is an uncommon lesion in our practice, but has been seen more commonly in other geographic regions. Closure of the linea alba should be done using an appositional pattern. I prefer a cruciate suture pattern with No. 1 or No. 2 PDS, Vicryl, or Maxon. Simple continuous suture patterns are acceptable, but the incision should be divided into three segments with each segment closed with a separate simple continuous closure. The skin of the ventral midline in camelids is thin and pliable. Therefore, I routinely place a subcuticular suture pattern (No. 2-0 Vicryl or Monocryl) and do not use skin sutures. An abdominal bandage maintained for 3 days after surgery (changed daily) may markedly reduce post-operative incisional swelling.

Post-operative  Management - Camelids appear to be fairly tolerant of intestinal surgery when performed early in the progression of the disease. Ileus has not been a limiting factor in the outcome of our cases. However, ileus is a prominent feature with transmural enteritis.

Complications of Disease or Treatment - Incisional infection or hernia appear to be uncommon complications of celiotomy. I routinely place crias on sucralfate (1 to 3 g, po, Q8h) as a prophylaxis for C3 ulcers. H2 blockers are ineffective in camelids; therefore, omiprazole (0.4 mg/kg, IV, Q6 to 8h) may be administered to decrease acid secretion in C3.

Overview - The decision to perform exploratory celiotomy can be frustrating. In general, medical diseases affecting the abdomen are far more common than surgical lesions. However, diagnosis of a "medical" lesion by exploratory celiotomy may be an acceptable procedure when a definitive diagnosis can not be made based on historical, physical examination findings, laboratory data, and clinical observation. Diagnosis of a "surgical" lesion by the pathologist is undesirable!

Differential Diagnoses for The Acute Abdomen of Camelids

Surgical Lesions

Medical Lesions


perforating C3 ulcer

C1 acidosis
(grain overload, C1 atony)


C3 ulcers
(intestinal/colonic ulcers)


enteritis (Clostridial, E. Coli)

proximal loop of
spiral colon impaction


complicated umbilical /
inguinal hernia

pancreatitis, hepatitis

intestinal volvulus,
internal hernia




urolith, ruptured bladder

cystitis, pyelonephritis



uterine torsion, dystocia





Stomach Ulcers in Alpacas and Llamas
Stephen R. Purdy, DVM

Normal Stomach Anatomy

·       3 compartments:

·       C1- 83% by volume of stomach contents (15- 25 liters)

·       C2- 6% by volume (1- 2 liters)

·       C1 and C2 contents freely intermix

·       bicarbonate secreted in ventral saccules of C1 and C2 to buffer pH in C1

·       C3- a tubular structure

·       first 3/4 is glandular ~ saccules of C1 and C2

·       last 1/4 has acid secreting glands- ph 1.4- 2.0

·       peristaltic contractions mix stomach contents with secreted acid

·       very little is known about control of acid secretion in camelids

·       protective mechanisms preventing autodigestion of the stomach lining are thought to be similar to other species

·       ulcers occur mostly in acid-secreting zone of C3 and upper duodenum

Clinical Signs Of Ulcers: alpacas and llamas are very stoic animals!

·       depression/ lack of appetite

·       ~1/3 of cases show colic- shifting weight, grinding teeth, frothing at the mouth, rolling, getting up and down

·       not often feverish

·       decreased manure production

·       may be obscured by other disease conditions which might be the cause of the ulcers

Proposed Mechanisms of Ulcer Formation in Camelids

·       stress- serious or chronic diseases increase the incidence of ulcers

·       high incidence with colic cases at referral hospitals

·       found in animals dying of any cause with no premortem signs of ulcers

·       complicated orthopedic problems- pain may predispose to major trauma, e.g. dog bites

·       overcrowding

·       travel- long distance, hot weather, and nervous temperament animals

·       weaning- delay if cria has health problems

·       isolation from other animals- have to see other camelids ( they are herd animals)

·       glucocorticoids- cortisones- topical, oral or injectable can cause ulcer formation

·       non-steroidal antiinflammatory drugs such as Bute and Banamine

·       not as often as in horses, but don't use a long time

·       bacteria- not isolated in lamas as in people

·       excessive acid secretion- no evidence either way that this contributes to ulcer formation in camelids

·       dietary causes?

·       high grain diets?? - seen in cattle

·       low incidence in S. America where little grain is fed

·       small particle size pellets?? - causes ulcers in pigs

Diagnosis of Ulcers

·       clinical signs

·       no specific blood tests

·       abdominal exploratory surgery- A bad idea in an already stressed animal

·       dark stools indicating the presence of digested blood are not seen

·       decreased bacteria and protozoa in C1 contents sample from stomach tube

·       C1 pH < 4.0 on stomach tube sample

·       abdominal tap is usually normal unless perforation has occurred

Differential Diagnoses:

·       intestinal torsions- rare

·       uterine torsion- last 60 days of gestation

·       impactions- should see significant dehydration

·       enemas in newborn crias could prevent

·       abdominal tumors- rare

·       intussusception- rare

·       peritonitis- uncommon, except with perforating ulcers

·       urinary tract problems- males- ruptured bladder/urethral stones-uncommon

·       intra-abdominal abscesses- uncommon- abdominal tap shows increased WBCs, or possibly increased serum globulin level

·       toxic plants- Rhododendron

·       C1 stasis (lack of stomach motility)

·       in adults off feed greater than 3- 4 days

·       in crias with repeated tubing

·       lactic acidosis- overeating grain- C1 stasis- low C1 pH

Management of Ulcers

·       Oregon State University Vet School- most occur as secondary problems (this has also been my experience)

·       some cases at Colorado State University Vet School have resulted in secondary pneumonia

·       ulcers in newborns in New England

relatively high mortality, so treat aggressively!!!-

·       suppress acid production

·       antihistamines (H2 blockers)

·       Zantac (ranitidine)- perhaps the best drug for treatment of ulcers

·       0.75 mg/lb IM, subQ, or IV two times daily (once daily for prevention)

·       not effective orally

·       Prilosec (omeprazole)- good orally at 0.5 mg/lb PO BID (once daily for prevention)

·       open capsule into 12 ml syringe (with tip end cut off) with KY and squirt into mouth

·       nonspecific C3 protection- sucralfate (Carafate)- 10 mg/lb orally four times a day- not very effective in adults

·       stress reduction!!!!!

·       resolve the primary problem

·       cohousing with herdmates

·       IV fluids/ prophylactic antibiotics

·       preventative treatment when a severe primary disease is present

·       Zantac or Prilosec once daily

·       do not let the treatment worsen the disease



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