Some of our Junior Male Show Team members contracted Bovine TB in 2009(we believe whilst at a Show but, not necessarily from other alpacas). We closed the herd from 10/9/2009 when we had our first suspicious symptom (but were not closed by Animal Health until November 2009!). Although we were clear at the end of January 2011, we did not move any stock until May 2011. We are now resuming sales and matings (however, we will only be having drive by matings. Mobile matings may be possible subject to circumstances. We do not wish to go through another TB cession!). Please do contact us for advice on how to handle TB in the herd, the risks of your own herd becoming infected and the potential sources of infection, also, for methods of controlling the infection if you have or, suspect that you have an alpaca with TB. However, we would advise that Defra take a rather dim view of treatment with anti-tuberculin drugs (despite there not being any legislation restricting administration of these drugs to camelids). We lost a total of 13 alpacas to TB (14% of the herd). Of these thirteen, ten had been placed in quarantine from the start in September and October 2009. A number of other breeders lost/are losing a considerably higher proportion of their herd, so it is a disease that has to be taken very seriously and, in our opinion, can be (but not always) transmitted very readily between alpacas. Early quarantine of any suspect/close contact alpacas is essential, as is treatment (if you wish to embark on that course, the cost of the drugs is in the region of £1,000 to £3000 plus per animal depending on the length of treatment decided upon (the longer the better)and the weight of the alpaca). We believe that we successfully cured two out of five alpacas (however, we can't be sure that those two had TB in first place). We think that the disease had progressed too far, before they showed any symptoms, in the other treated and prophylactically treated close contact animals. The last few to die/be put down, all in a quarrantine group, were the last ones to be given any TB drugs. We think that all had been quietly incubating the infection for a while and although they had high dose treatment for varying lengths of time, it was not long enough and was started too late. However, the treatment did work sufficiently for them to regain weight and be outwardly well for some months (and almost certainly reduced or illiminated their infectiousness during that time). One, that we had put down, appeared to indicate that the treatment was substantially successful. One of the most recent deaths was the cria of a female that died of TB in November 2009. This male never showed symptoms until a couple of days prior to death, but should probably have been treated as soon as his mother died, as from the PM, he had clearly had it for a long time ( he may have developed some resistance, hence it taking 13 months before symptoms appeared). Most of the others had some sign of not being 100% fit at a much earlier stage.
The two alpacas that were treated early on and completed initial treatment in November and December 2009, are both still alive (July 2011)and appear to be very well. So it would seem that, on the evidence so far, one has to start treatment very early if a short high dose course is going to work (or they didn't have it in the first place?). Otherwise, a much longer, possibly multi-drug, course will be needed (assuming you can get the drugs). Unless the alpaca is very valuable, this is not a viable proposition as the cost could be in the region of £4,000 to £5,000. However, Isoniazid alone does appear to be effective but, a longer 6 to 12 months high dose course is probably required. As a precaution (based on experience gained via the later failures), we gave the early treated alpacas further 12 + month courses of Isoniazid and vitamin B6 (this helps to reduce any adverse side effects).
Tb tests are not infallible and one female passed two tests and yet, was subsequently put down and confirmed to have Tb. However, she did have side effects - see below. Be very suspicious of any alpaca that has any adverse reaction to the test and of any that have even the slightest thickening of the skin at the bovine injection site (it is probably best to ignore the required level of thickening that officially indicates a "reactor". Quarantine all that show any reaction at all. We had two with a very slight reaction, both had been in quarantine from the start and both did have TB).
It is essential to adequately quarantine any alpaca showing suspicious symptoms (these, in our case, were a higher respiration rate than normal, a high temperature -(above 104 f and up to 107.8 f in one case, the normal range is 101.5 f to 102.5 f) and a bit later, symptoms similar to pneumonia and some weight loss and for one, the only symptom was constipation!). Please note that heat stress can be the cause of a high respiration rate and raised temperature - so if the alpaca is in full fleece and the weather is hot/humid, suspect heat stress before assuming TB and cool the alpaca down.
We had none with really significant weight loss until two later cases but, this can be common for other spoligotypes of bovine TB and none with coughs (except for the last of the two females in June/July 2010 at a late stage)but, again, this is a sign with some spoligotypes and, if our experience is anything to go by, the symptoms can vary significantly within the same spoligotype. One appeared to be in the peak of health until suddenly dropping dead! The problem for all alpaca owners is that many of the symptoms of TB are similar to those encountered with many other ailments - so don't immediately think the worst (in young animals, coccidia can give rise to some of these symptoms and not all coughs are due to TB) but, do quarantine until you are sure of what you are dealing with. Our experience has shown that it can be spread rapidly to those in close and continuous contact, especially if an alpaca is shedding TB bacteria (they are not all necessarily infectious). One interesting fact is that neither of the two females, that had b TB, had lesions in their mammary glands but, one cria subsequently died, the other is totally fine and passed four tests. From all accounts that we are aware of, TB has yet to be found in the genitalia of alpacas (certainly not those that were otherwise appearing to be well). So matings would not appear to be a particulary high risk of infection and any risk that there may be can be reduced further by placing a clean sock over the nose of each alpaca (they can breath perfectly well). However, it is not a good idea to do spit offs outside your own herd - with or without socks! Even within your own herd, it is often sufficient to just place the females adjacent to a mating couple and see which ones sit. Not quite as accurate as a one on one spit off, but nearly as good and reduces the risk of passing on any infection (not just TB).
TB should be suspected in any alpaca that has colic following a skin test. There are now many such reported cases, including our last female case(we,also,had one with this reaction after a blue tongue vaccination and he, also, had TB). Do not put too much reliance on the blood tests either, there are far too many cases of probable/possible false positives (alpacas that test positive for TB but, don't visibly have it on PM) and, we still don't know if they are picking out all of the alpacas that actually do have it. Further research is required before one can be confident in using these tests (both of which are still being trialed) - particularly with regard to possibly losing animals unnecessarily. Given the lack of any currently proven ante-mortem test, we had hoped to try high definition x-rays during our breakdown, but unfortunately, the machine was wrecked by a horse. We understand that others have tried this method and have found it to be effective in picking out those with lesions/lesion like damage (remember that liver fluke, lungworm and other parasites and infections can give a similar picture). Obviously, early stage infection will not be picked up, but if three lots of x-rays are taken 60 days apart, it would seem likely that a high proportion (possibly all) would be detected over that period. Ultra sound scanning can, also, work, however, given the rather grainy picture obtained from this method, you need a very experienced vet to interpret the images.
If you are located in a TB "hotspot" area, it is worth considering installing electric badger fencing or, high tensile steel mesh badger fencing around the perimeter of your farm. Obviously, this might not be practical for large establishments but, for those with smaller farms they are effective. The cheapest option is a four strand electric fence (plus an earth wire on the ground) with mesh on all access gates (the cost is considerably less than that of one good female alpaca). We have found the electric fence has detered all badgers (not that we think our local badgers have TB but, they could do so in the future or may have already caught it from our alpacas), however, we have found that it also, unfortunately, kills hedgehogs as well as frogs and toads heading to our pond for spawning. So a ramp is needed on their main run so that they can climb over the bottom wire. Curiously, the frogs and toads soon learnt not to touch the wires - they are not as stupid as one might have thought! We installed double fencing between all paddocks (effectively making all 10 main paddocks capable of being a quarantine paddock). This was a bit late in the day in our case (although it certainly enabled us to successfully manage our way out of the disease)but, it is something that should be considered on all alpaca farms. Apart from the bio-security benefit, the gaps will make convenient herding lanes from all directions to the mating and husbandry task pens. The cost is not insignificant, especially as we use post and rail, and the number of gates grew exponentially!
I had a meeting with the Minister (Jim Paice), on 18th October 2010, to discuss the whole issue of bovine TB in camelids, including amongst others, the lack of adequate ante-mortem testing, the lack of adequate compensation, the restricted qualification for receiving that compensation and the department's view on vaccinating camelids against b TB.
The meeting was not as succesful as hoped for. This was mainly because it was hijacked by representatives from Defra. Much misinformation and untruthful statements were made by one representative, in particular. This, unfortunately, meant that much time was wasted (probably by design) in challenging and correcting what was said. However, the minister did agree that immune response tests for bovine TB were not ideal and they were now revisiting the possibility of developing a version of the PCR test (which detects actual infection, rather than an immunity that could be acquired or inherited). In the meantime, the gamma interferon trials will be going ahead. Since the meeting, it seems that the PCR test has been kicked into touch again (although, a recent Countryfile programme suggests that something similar to PCR is being tested by the VLA and that vaccination of livestock could be back on the medium term agenda, but the DIVA test (a test to differentiate between vaccinated and infected animals) has to be perfected first, plus agreement is required from the EU.
The minister agreed that there was a problem with the current level of compensation and quite understood why owners feel it to be inadequate and, until recently, had not been aware of the high values of many alpacas. Opinions, in this respect, could be submitted under the bovine TB consultation process which, also, posed questions as to whether non-bovines should come under similar rules to those applying to bovines etc(the consultation is now closed to new input). There was insufficient time to discuss why Defra chooses to disqualify some animals from any form of compensation (I did say that I believe that many of these cases are incorrectly excluded and had more to do with cost saving and reducing the numbers with regard to the TB data submitted to ministers and to the EU). Defra's appallingly bad recording of data on TB was raised. (Following the round of spending cuts, I was later advised that a voluntary increase in compensation is extremely unlikely).
Vaccination was only briefly discussed at the time. There does not seem to be any objection in principle. The current BCG vaccine has an efficacy of around 65% to 70% (meaning that out of 100 animals vaccinated only 65 to 70 would be immune - however, that number does reduce the chances of infection for those not technically immune). There is a recently developed vaccine for humans (still under trial) that has shown a close to 100% success rate, in a number of animal test species for various forms of TB, including bovine. So there's hope on that front.
The minister mentioned that a decision with regard to the badger problem might be brought forward to early next year (was scheduled for mid May 2011). Does not seem to be a change on this front!
Since the meeting, I have asked for further clarification of certain issues. Obviously, the current round of spending cuts will not help (29% in the case of Defra) but, I hope that the current government will see that expenditure on prevention and better tests would save tens of millions of pounds in future compensation expense and costs to farmers. My MP, Laurence Robertson, has raised a number questions in the commons relating to bTB and with regard to camelids in particular. He will continue to push for further answers and will raise more questions in relation to compensation. An area where, in our opinion, the Government is not correctly interpreting the law and should be paying market value in accordance with the Diseases of Animals ( Ascertainment of Compensation) Order 1959 (an old order that was not repealed by later Acts of Parliament and is therefore still in place) and not relying upon a "voluntary Ex-Gratia" payment of £750.
We have not had any TB deaths in the main herd since 2nd July 2010 and now feel confident that we are out the other side of it.