Kanip is a three-foot tall, fluffy alpaca with big brown eyes. Physically, she doesn’t stand out from the crowd of 26 alpacas and 6 llamas that live on Mary Warbin’s farm in LaCenter, Washington, but Kanip is not an average alpaca.
For one thing, she is unusually vocal; she grumbles, clucks, and screeches. And when she is anxious or unhappy, she really let’s it rip. She may be curly and cute, but her screams are ear-splitting. “We got her from a farm in Ohio and they had named her Conniption Fit,” says Warbin. “I thought, ‘Who in the world would name an alpaca Conniption Fit?’ Well, it describes her perfectly.”
After the birth of her first baby, Kanip was a reluctant mom. She refused to nurse, so Warbin had to bottle-feed the newborn. “Every time I touched the baby, Kanip would scream at me.” One morning, after many nights sleeping in the barn, feeding the baby, Warbin woke up to find Kanip snuggled at her feet. Then the new mom got up and started nursing her baby. “Since then I am her best friend,” says Warbin. “We are now very close.”
Last year, Warbin went out to the pasture and was surprised when Kanip didn’t come to greet her. She soon realized that something was very wrong. “She could not get up,” says Warbin. “I called the vet but by the time he arrived, she was up and walking normally.”
Then, last month, it happened again. “She was on the ground screaming,” says Warbin. This time she could not get up so Warbin and her husband carried her into the trailer and drove her to the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH). X-rays revealed that both her rear knee caps had dislocated and shifted off to one side.
A knee cap that shifts out of position is known as a luxated patella. The condition is fairly common in dogs, but is rare in alpacas. In most cases, a luxated patella is caused by a congenital deformity in the groove where the patella sits; the groove is not deep enough to hold the knee cap in place.
Dr. Michael Huber, a veterinary surgeon with 33 years of experience, is an expert at handling difficult cases like Kanip’s. “It was challenging because both limbs were involved – she did not have a good leg to stand on,” says Huber. “The knee caps were loose and moving both medially and laterally [to the inside and outside]. Since it is usually just to the outside, this indicates severe instability.”
He explained to Warbin that Kanip’s kneecaps could be fixed with a surgical technique called trochlear recession and soft tissue imbrication. The surgery would deepen the groove in the leg bone where the knee cap sits and tighten the bands of tissue that hold it in in place.
Fourth-year student, Christina Crawford, was assigned to large animal hospital rounds when Kanip first arrived. She provided much of the basic care the alpaca received before and after her surgery. “Kanip was quite shy when she first arrived,” says Crawford. “We moved slowly and talked quietly around her. We discovered that she really enjoyed being petted right behind her ears, and that seemed to calm her.”
The OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital has the largest group of board certified veterinary specialists in Oregon, so complicated surgeries are often a team effort. For Kanip’s surgery, Huber consulted with small animal surgeon Dr. Wendy Baltzer, who had performed this procedure on dogs. Huber also had the benefit of onsite anesthesiology specialists. “They provided controlled, prolonged anesthesia and monitoring,” he says.
Kanip had some complications, including a shift of one patella due to a post-surgery fracture of the stabilizing bone. Once Huber fixed that issue, Kanip was able to take advantage of the hospital’s extensive rehabilitation unit, primarily used for dogs and cats. “Kanip was the first large animal to have planned physical therapy at the VTH,” says Huber. “Treatment included cold laser therapy, limb manipulation, and electrical muscle stimulation. It had a major role in her recovery.”
As a student, Crawford valued the learning experience of working alongside Dr. Huber’s team and caring for Kanip. “I learned that a case can take unexpected turns, and that you should not give up because they can have excellent results.”
“The students were very important in her recovery,” says Warbin. “They provided the pampering and babying she needs because she is so emotional. Without them, she would not have recovered so quickly.”
Six weeks after her surgery, Kanip is nearly back to normal. “She has been a wonder. She has picked up her pace and is even walking up inclines,” says Warbin. “ One day her baby was startled and landed on Kanip’s back leg. I freaked out but everything held and she was okay.”
Dr. Huber is also pleased with the results. “Kanip was a special patient; very vocal with some ‘human’ responses and emotions. I understand Mary’s connection to her.”
In fact, that connection is now so strong, Warbin has built a new home for Kanip and her baby between the house and the alpaca pens where the rest of the herd lives. “She is part of our family so we built her stall right next to our deck so she can be near us.”