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The Day Petey Went Blind

It was early December and we had just purchased a group of alpacas from out of state. One of the females we purchased had a 5-month-old cria at her side. Just perfect, I figured, since our crias were all about the same age, and all still nursing, but just starting to eat grain as well. We had quarantined the new animals and had given all the adults their shots and vaccinations but had done nothing with the little boy cria we just purchased, figuring he would get what he needed from nursing his mother. We kept an eye on him and by all accounts he was healthy and happy and starting to eat grain as well, a little bit at a time. As time progressed, we let all of the new animals in with our herd and everyone was doing well and getting along. The little boy cria, “Petey,” was full of himself and started playing with the other crias immediately. Nothing looked out of place and everything seemed that their transition into the herd would be a smooth one.

A couple of weeks passed and we had progressed to hand feeding all of our crias a little grain, small amounts at a time. The babies enjoyed it, but after a few mouthfuls would wander off in search of mom. Everything was going great and it got to the point that the crias would see the blue grain scoops at feeding time and would come running over for some grain. We would sit with them for long periods at a time while the adults ate, smiling and laughing at the crias’ antics, their little voices grunting and squeaking while trying to push the other crias out of the way to get more than their share. Although we love all our animals, feeding the babies got to be a real highlight at 5am.

Since none of our babies had ever been dewormed, and with the introduction of the new animals, we figured we should probably do something. Now, we have a fecal testing lab and only deworm when we see a problem or when we introduce new animals, but we figured now might be a good time to give a prophylactic dose to the babies. I contacted Merck and received their recommendations for using one of my favorite dewormers. Holding true to any good pharmaceutical company, they helped me with dosing and administration advice, and I was set to go. Shortly after that, I took the dewormer and went into the barn in search of the babies. One by one, I dosed them until all had been treated.

That night when we went out to feed everything looked fine and the babies came running despite the fact that I had tortured them with dewormer earlier that day. Everyone ate and had settled down munching hay by the time we shut off the lights for another cold New England night.

05:00 the next morning, feeding time. The horses were turned out and the feeding of the alpacas started. The babies came running, but something just wasn’t right with little Petey. I couldn’t put my finger on it.  He looked good, he ate well, and he was moving OK, but something just wasn’t right. All the other babies were fine, but I kept looking at Petey.

Figuring it was just me, we fed and hayed, and went about our business.  However, I kept thinking of him. A few hours later, I went out to check on him, and something was most definitely wrong. It appeared that he was losing his eyesight. I would move my hand near his eyes and he wouldn’t flinch.

Panicked, I tried other things: A flashlight, no response, loud noises, he reacted. What did I do differently I asked myself. Dewormer I cried, it has to be the dewormer. I ran into the house and contacted Merck. My call was answered immediately and the receptionist listened carefully to my concerns. When I finished explaining the situation, she asked me to hold and put me right through to their staff veterinarian. A warm, fatherly voice with a heavy southern accent answered. I explained things to him and with great concern he assured me that he had never before heard of the dewormer having that result, but suggested that I administer Thiamine immediately. He also added that it was by prescription only, but if my vet wasn’t available to call him back and he would fax me in scrip for some. I called my vet and, unfortunately, he didn’t have any on his truck, but told me to get a B complex at a local feed store and start administering it at once. I thanked him, hung up and drove like a madman to the local feed store, grabbed a bottle of B complex and raced home. Now, I must admit, I drive like an old lady, but when I passed the local town officer driving like “my ass was on fire and my hair was catching,” he must have figured something was up and just stared as I drove past him at a high rate of speed since he had never seen me driving over 30 mph in 11 years.

Once back at the farm I drew up a syringe of B Complex and stuck it into little Petey. By this time he was showing other signs, stargazing or tilting his head up to the sky as well as having an unsteady gait. I pushed the plunger on the syringe and prayed that he would show immediate results, but that was not to be. I took him up in my arms and placed him in an empty stall with lots of soft hay and went looking for his mother. She wasn’t so easily captured, and after a string of curses and threats of bodily harm I managed to get her into the stall with little Petey. My vet suggested I start a course of antibiotics as well, so I got them started as Petey settled into the hay. A few hours later he was still getting worse. His neck started arching (opisthotonos or spasming or arching of the back and neck) and I figured he was a goner.

I called the owner of the animals that we had purchased the herd from and explained the situation. She assured me that although she knows of the problem and that she keeps Thiamine on hand at all times that she had never had a problem with her animals before. I then hit the Internet looking for info, good, bad or indifferent, just starved for information about this problem, and after an hour or so, there it was:  A couple year old post from the person we purchased the alpacas from asking about the same thing we were experiencing. Now, I want to make the point perfectly clear that I am not blaming anyone or pointing fingers, but our vet did informed us that poor quality hay could lead to this condition and that with time, specially during lactation, it could present itself again a couple months later even though the quality of hay had been improved.

All night we checked on him while feeling completely helpless as to how to help him. By morning, he was doing a little better and had stopped arching his neck. His gait was better, but we still couldn’t get him to nurse or eat. We would go into the stall and hold his mother, since she wanted nothing to do with him, and put his mouth onto her teats. He would not nurse, and our feelings of despair grew worse. I kept up the shots of B complex and antibiotics and slowly he got better, but was still blind.

Our vet came up on the third day at our request and checked him out. Yup, he said, he sure is blind, but wasn’t too quick to say PEM or Polioencephalomalacia was the cause. He kept looking at him and kept saying that things just didn’t look right and didn’t point to any one diagnosis. He suggested starting him on an anti-inflammatory to reduce the swelling on the brain that he felt caused the blindness and we started that immediately. The vet drew blood for labs but said there wasn’t much else he could do right now and for us to continue with the course we had started.

Poor Petey was like a pincushion, 3 injections being given every four hours, all day and night. My wife would hold him and I would stick him, time and time again. The poor little guy didn’t like it much but there was little he could do about it. His grunting and squeals that we once laughed at and derived pleasure from turned hollow and I cringed as I stuck another needle in him.

Now, I work in healthcare as my real job and giving shots and dealing with people in pain is just part of my job, but it tore my heart out to see this poor little animal, that I couldn’t explain why I was doing this to, squirm in pain as I stuck needles in him time and time again. But if there is a silver lining, it was working! With time, little Petey started to respond to light and sure enough, with every day he was improving. But like so many New Englanders, I only see the worst in things and kept asking myself if he would keep getting better or if this is how he would end up. (sort of like this winter, will it ever warm up?) But much to the valiant efforts of our vet, Merck, and all our employees, little Petey is back to normal. Now I admit of course, there is no way to tell exactly how much vision was lost, if any, but other than that he is 100% normal. Even our vet is surprised at how well he recovered.

My wife and I have been in the alpaca business for many years and I was raised with sheep before that, so I know animals. I have a strong medical background and do my best to keep my animals happy and healthy, but this one, a very common animal issue, completely blindsided me. Please learn from my mistakes and never feel like you know what’s best for your animals, do your research, talk to others and by all means, look for any slight change in your animals’ behavior.

Listed below is a VERY BRIEF explanation of PEM. It is by no means meant to replace the knowledge of a vet, only posted to help others.

Thiamine deficiency or Polioencephalomalacia (PEM)
As I learned, Thiamine is a B vitamin, or B1 to be exact, and it plays a crucial role in alpaca health. Thiamine is water-soluble and is manufactured in the ruminant. However, as it is being made, it is being depleted as well. It is extremely important in the metabolism for all alpaca cells, but absolutely critical in brain and heart cells. With less than adequate supplies of thiamine, the brain may cease to function properly and may physically deteriorate.

This condition could lead to death unless corrected by immediately administering thiamine. Thiamine is inexpensive, but only available by prescription; however, a vitamin B complex will work in high doses until thiamine is available.

Thiamine depletion may happen for many reasons, like after a sudden feed change or after the use of some antibiotics/dewormers. Other causes might result from the animal experiencing lactic acidosis caused by eating too much grain or feed in a single feeding. There is also a microorganism called thiaminaseI. They break down thiamine and may be acquired by ingesting prostrate pigweed, bracken fern, and/or horsetails. A common parasite named coccidia may also cause this condition since they rely on thiamine to reproduce, thus reducing the levels of it in the alpaca.

Alpacas with PEM may experience diarrhea, may be listless or lethargic and exhibit unusual neurological symptoms. They may include, decreased appetite, staggering or unsteady gait, elevated head or stargazing, head or ear twitching, excess salivation and drooling.

The acute stage of PEM is typically characterized by blindness; grinding teeth;  opisthotonos (spasming or arching of the back and neck); seizures and muscle spasms as well as recumbency and failure to rise. Untreated acute PEM will lead to coma and death. It should be also noted that there are many conditions with similar symptoms to PEM so contact your veterinarian for a complete diagnosis.

Many thanks to the Merck Manual of animal health and to our vet and others as well as numerous websites for a lot of the info found in this article.


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