Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Open Up and Say Ahh-lpaca

Pet Column for the week of January 20, 2009

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Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

With spitting accuracy like a sniper, alpacas and llamas use their mouths for more than chewing. But unfortunately, "tooth abscesses are very common," says Dr. Varsha Ramoutar, a resident in the Farm Animal Reproductive Medicine and Surgery section at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

Depending on the sex, llamas and alpacas have 30 or 32 teeth. Males have two extras, called fighting or canine teeth that females don't always have. Dr. Ramoutar notes that because they can be dangerous, "these teeth should be clipped at about 1  1 1/2 years of age," or around the time males are castrated.

One of the big problems with llama dentistry is that their mouths are very narrow and can't open all the way. "There is not a lot of room to get tools in and out," says Dr. Ramoutar. You also can't ask a llama to lie back and say "Ahh." Not only would you probably receive a saliva bullet between the eyes, but they actually cannot extend their tongue outside of their mouth like most animals.

In general, an abscess is the body's way of fighting off an infection. According to a research paper published in 2007, it is believed that most tooth root abscesses in llamas and alpacas occur when they are erupting their permanent teeth. This usually happens around 4 to 5 years of age. Coincidentally, 5 years was the average age of an alpaca presenting to a veterinary hospital needing dental care in this study.

"Usually we most frequently see abscesses in the molar or premolars," says Dr. Ramoutar. These patients usually present with signs of weight loss if the problem has been chronic. Or initially, owners may begin to notice a decrease in feed intake. In some instances a large swelling on the animal's jaw may appear.

Either way, as many humans can attest, an abscessed tooth can be very painful. Dr. Ramoutar says that in these cases, we need to take an x-ray to see what is really going on." From that, surgeons can see exactly where the lesion is and if any other teeth may be affected.

"If we see a lytic lesion on the radiograph, it needs to be removed," explains Dr. Ramoutar. A lytic lesion is an area of bone that has been destroyed by an underlying disease process. In the case of a tooth root abscess, it is most likely a bacterial infection. These lesions show up on radiographs as light colored translucent areas, much different than what is expected of a healthy tooth's root.

If left untreated, "abscesses may rupture and drain on the side of the face," notes Dr. Ramoutar, which surely would be unsightly, not to mention painful, for the animal. Thus, if you suspect your alpaca may have a toothache don't hesitate to call your veterinarian. Hopefully, with a combination of antibiotics, pain management, and/or surgery, your llama will be back to spitting in no time.