Should I Trim My Alpaca’s Teeth?

Trimming teeth of an alpaca is a basic procedure that the animal will tolerate well if handled with care.

by Dr. Lyle G. McNeal
PHOTO: Michael Cory/Flickr

Q: I’m a little confused on when to trim my alpacas’ incisors: Is this required for every animal? If so, when?

The short answer to your question is that trimming teeth is not always required for all camelids, but let’s explore some background info on alpaca incisor teeth.

About Alpaca Teeth

South American camelids all possess six deciduous teeth, aka baby or milk teeth, and six permanent incisors in the lower jaw. These teeth all have wedge-shaped surfaces used to cut off plants or pick up hay during eating. The six lower incisors are designed to contact the front portion of the roof of the mouth, called the dental pad. It’s common to find that the lower incisors in adult alpacas and llamas have grown beyond the dental pad and protrude out of the lips. This is most commonly a cosmetic defect and not a functional problem with eating. Tooth conformation, like other anatomic conformation, is inherited from the combination of the dam’s and sire’s genes; animals with severe underbites should be considered for removal from breeding stock.

Long deciduous or permanent incisors should be trimmed so they at least contact the dental pad at the front edge. You must be careful not to remove so much of the tooth that the gums between the incisors are cut at the same time. Additionally, if you enter the pulp cavity as the tooth is removed, bleeding may occur. It’s not necessary to do anything to stop this bleeding, as it will end on its own in a short time and with no short-term problems or permanent damage—it will just cause mild pain and discomfort for the alpaca.

Preparing For Tooth Trimming

Before actually settling down for the trimming, draw a line on the tooth with a permanent marker to indicate the lower end of removal. Someone must restrain the alpaca’s head to prevent injury; you may choose to sedate the alpaca, especially if it’s frightened, to ensure safety for all involved.

Any trimming method requires that an object be placed in the alpaca’s mouth to open up a space between the opposing teeth so you have room to insert a cutting instrument. A 1-foot length of rubber hose can be held in the corners of the mouth across the top of the tongue to keep the jaws partially open to facilitate trimming. You can also use a metal porcine mouth speculum, a piece of cloth or a small towel to hold the alpaca’s mouth open.

Teeth-Trimming Methods

Three common methods are used to trim incisors:

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  • Gigli Wire Saw and Flat File: You can use the saw to remove the bulk of the tooth, followed by the file to provide a smooth, even biting surface.
  • Tooth-a-Matic: As long as the long incisors aren’t overly long, this power grinding tool is placed over them to cut them down. The tool is very noisy and heavy and must be supported from below while maintaining contact with the lower jaw, but it’s also very quick.
  • Dremel Tool: This tool uses a high-speed grinding or cutting attachment to trim teeth to the desired length. These are dangerous to the animal and operator. Wear thick leather gloves when handling the tool.

As you begin trimming, alpacas react adversely to the smoke and vibration at first, but then are tolerant of the procedure. As in all other procedures, they’re remarkably tolerant of incisor tooth trimming if approached calmly and with minimal restraint.

About the Author: Stephen Purdy, DVM, is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Veterinary & Animal Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

Dr. Lyle G. McNeal vetted this article.

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