Camelids Are Not Ruminants

Chapter 46 Camelids Are Not Ruminants


The risk of emerging, reemerging, foreign, and intentionally introduced animal disease is real, and many perceive this as a growing problem. The understanding of animal-human pathogen relationships relies on scientific information about various species and populations of animals. National regulatory statutes that provide disease protection between animals and humans must be current and must utilize up-to-date scientific data to protect human health and our food supply while not jeopardizing or overregulating any one animal.

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of the Interior (DOI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are the federal agencies tasked with protecting the nation’s wildlife, livestock industries, companion animals, human population, and the food supply from disease. The need for regulations has become more acute with the advent of modern transportation systems that allow movement of animals from any part of the world in a matter of hours. Also, our animal and human populations, along with the U.S. food supply, will now and always need to be protected against the threat of intentionally introduced animal and human disease because bioterrorism will remain a threat.

In a late December 2003 news conference, then–Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman made the following statement while talking about a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy that had been diagnosed Dec. 23, 2003, in a cow in the state of Washington: “The USDA has a primary goal of using science as the basis for decisions involving livestock health matters.”

It is not clear that all federal regulatory officials always use known science to draft regulations and apply them to risk situations. Zoo veterinarians ask only that camelids, which are classified as domestic animals, and other species of captive and free-ranging wild animals be treated fairly, using science-based consensus of understanding that may be incorporated into laws, regulations, policies, and programs. Current scientific information is the least that these populations of unique animals deserve.


Camelids are not ruminants taxonomically, physiologically, or behaviorally.7,8 Most importantly, from a veterinary standpoint, camelids and ruminants differ in susceptibility to infectious and parasitic diseases. The differences between camelids and ruminants should exclude camelids from being classified as ruminants. Nonetheless, camelids have been placed in various categories, such as “exotic animals,” “wild animals,” “other livestock species,” and “ruminants,” by state and federal regulators. Camelids have consistently been subjected to sudden, adverse regulations (some inappropriate) when an emerging disease of livestock appears on the scene.

The closing of the Canadian border to camelids when bovine spongiform encephalitis was diagnosed in a cow in Alberta, Canada, is a case in point. Camelids were classified as ruminants and subjected to all restrictions placed on ruminants. The fact that camelids have never been diagnosed with any of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies anywhere in the world (and are not ruminants) was not given proper consideration.

When questioned about that action, the response was that ruminants are defined by an “encyclopedia” as animals that chew a cud, are cloven hoofed, and have three- or four-chambered stomachs. Regulators completely disregarded the scientific literature that clearly shows that foregut fermentation, complex multicompartmentalized stomachs, food regurgitation, and rechewing are not limited to “ruminants” but are found in species as diverse as kangaroos and nonhuman primates.13 In kangaroos, regurgitation and rechewing is referred to as merycism (Greek, “chewing the cud”). Foregut fermentation and multicompartmented stomachs are also seen in many species, including the hippopotamus, kangaroo, colobus monkey, and peccary.4

Modern paleontologic and taxonomic scientists clearly state that camelids belong in a separate suborder Tylopoda (Latin, “padded foot”) in the order Artiodactyla, which is distinct from the suborder Ruminantia* (Box 46-1).

Camelid evolution began in North America 40 to 50 million years ago in the early Eocene epoch.6,7 Separation of the Tylopoda and Ruminantia occurred early in the evolutionary process, when the progenitors of both groups were small goat-sized animals with simple stomachs.33

Tylopods and ruminants continued to evolve by what is known as parallel evolution, which is the development of similarities in separate but related evolutionary lineages through the operation of similar selective factors acting on both lines6,7,33 (Figure 46-1).

The Pleistocene epoch was characterized by a series of periods of extreme cold and glaciations in northern North America and Europe. The last glacial retreat occurred about 10,000 years ago, marking the beginning of the Recent epoch.

Asia and Alaska are now separated by the 90-km (56-mile)–wide Bering Strait. However, during the height of one of the early Pleistocene glacial periods, the sea level was lowered sufficiently to expose a wide land bridge. Plant and animal species moved back and forth across this bridge; the camel line of Camelidae migrated from North America into Asia, where the evolutionary process continued and domestication took place.

Progenitors of the South American camelids (SACs) (guanaco, vicu-a, llama, and alpaca) migrated to South America at the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch (∼3 million years ago), when an open land connection between North and South America developed.6 Evolution continued in South America, where llama and alpaca were domesticated.9,10,35


Anatomic and physiologic differences between camelids and ruminants abound (Table 46-1).

Table 46-1 Differences Between Camelids and Ruminants

  South American Camelids Ruminants
Evolutionary pathways Diverged 40 million years ago. Diverged 40 million years ago.
Red blood cells Elliptic and small (6.5 μm). Round and large (10 μm).
Predominant white blood cell Neutrophil. Lymphocyte.
Leukocytes Up to 22,000. Up to 12,000.
Blood glucose levels Higher than ruminants (73-121 mg/dL). 18-65 mg/dL.
Horns or antlers None. Usually present in male.
Foot Triangular-shaped toenails and fat pad covered by soft, flexible slipper. Has hooves and sole.
Upper lip Split and prehensile. Not split.
Flank fold None. Pronounced.
Musculoskeletal system    
Stance Modified digitigrades. Unguligrade ending in a hoof.
Second and third phalanges Horizontal. Almost vertical.
Foot Not cloven. Cloven.
Dewclaws None. Many have dewclaws.
Digestive system    
  Foregut fermenter, with regurgitation, rechewing, and reswallowing. Same (parallel evolution).
Stomach Three compartments not homologous with rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum; all compartments have glandular epithelium; stomach motility from caudad to craniad; resistant to bloat. Four compartments; susceptible to bloat.
Dental formula* I 1/3, C 1/1, PM 1-2/1-2, M 3/3 × 2 = 28-32 I 0/3, C 0/1, PM 3/3, M 3/3 × 2 =32
  Vicuña has incisors that continue to erupt.  
Ovulation Induced. Spontaneous.
Estrous cycle No. Yes.
Follicular wave cycle Yes. No.
Copulation In prone position. In standing position.
Placenta Diffuse and noninvasive. Cotyledonary.
Epidermal membrane Surrounding fetus. None on fetus.
Cartilaginous projection on tip of penis Yes. No.
Ejaculation Prolonged. Short and intense.
Respiratory system    
Soft palate Elongated; primarily a nasal breather. Short; nasal or oral breather.
Urinary system    
Kidney Smooth and elliptic. Smooth or lobed.
Suburethral diverticulum In female at external urethral orifice None
Dorsal urethral recess In male at junction of pelvic and penile urethra. In some species.
Lice Unique biting and sucking lice. Lice species different.
Coccidia Eimeria species (coccidia) are different. Unique species of coccidia.
Gastrointestinal nematodes Share some with cattle, sheep, and goats. Share with camelids.
Infectious diseases    
Tuberculosis Minimally susceptible. Highly susceptible.
Bovine brucellosis No known natural. Highly susceptible.
Foot-and-mouth disease Mild susceptibility. Highly susceptible.
  Rare clinical disease with other bovine and ovine viral diseases.  
Females do not lick their offspring Females lick offspring.
Females do not touch/lick aborted fetuses. Females investigate dead fetuses.
Females do not consume the placenta. Females may consume the placenta.

* I, incisors; C, canines; PM, premolars; M, molars.

Susceptibility to infectious and parasitic agents is of greater concern. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has stated that camelids should be classified as ruminants because, “regardless of their taxonomic classification, camelids meet the definition of ruminants and are regulated as ruminants based on their susceptibility to ruminant diseases such as foot and mouth disease, tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis, M. tuberculosis, and M. avium), brucellosis, Johne’s disease, etc.”11

It is true that there are diseases that camelids, cattle, sheep, and goats all acquire, but a careful appraisal of Tables 46-2 through 46-9 should dispel the myth that “llamas and alpacas are susceptible to all cattle and sheep diseases.”34 In fact, they are quite resistant to many regulated ruminant diseases.

Table 46-2 Clinical Infectious Diseases of Camelids and Ruminants

Camelids and Ruminants Ruminants (Not Seen in Camelids) Camelids (Not Seen in Ruminants)
Contagious ecthyma Malignant catarrhal fever Camelpox
Rabies (common to many mammals) Bovine leukemia Camel papillomatosis
Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD; occurs in many nonruminants) Cowpox Mycoplasma hemolama (Eperythrozoonosis)
Rinderpest (camels) Pseudorabies Lama adenoviruses, serotypes 1-6
West Nile virus (WNV) encephalopathy (seen in many mammals and birds) Bovine papillomatosis  
Fungal diseases (ringworm) (common to many mammals) Ovine progressive pneumonia  
Tetanus and other clostridial diseases Sheeppox or goatpox  
Bovine tuberculosis (seen in many nonruminant species) Balanoposthitis  
Johne’s disease Sheep or goat papillomatosis  
Necrobacillosis Scrapie  
Streptococcosis (common to many nonruminant species) Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)  
Staphylococcosis (common to many nonruminant species) Chronic wasting disease (CWD) of cervids  
Caprine/ovine brucellosis Bovine brucellosis  

Table 46-3 Infectious Disease Agents Producing Antibody Response, but Rare or No Clinical Disease in Camelids

Agent Disease
Bovine herpesvirus type 1 Infectious bovine rhinotracheitis
Equine herpesvirus type 1 Equine rhinopneumonitis
  Retinal degeneration in SACs
Bluetongue/epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus Bluetongue, epizootic hemorrhagic disease of deer
Rift Valley fever virus (camels) Rift Valley fever
Rotavirus Enteritis (diarrhea)
Coronavirus Enteritis (diarrhea)
Adenovirus Enteritis (diarrhea)
Encephalomyocarditis virus Encephalomyocarditis (EMC)
Brucella abortus Bovine brucellosis
Borna disease virus Viral encephalitis
Vesicular stomatitis virus Vesicular stomatitis

SACs, South American camelids.

Stay updated, free articles. Join our Telegram channel

Oct 1, 2016 | Posted by in EXOTIC, WILD, ZOO | Comments Off on Camelids Are Not Ruminants

Full access? Get Clinical Tree

Get Clinical Tree app for offline access