Llama’s digestive system is one of the most interesting of all of its organ systems. It has some of the most unique characteristics that separate it from other animals, especially ruminants.
Llama evolved in harsh conditions where not much food was available. And the little food there was, had a low nutritional value. The unique features of its gastrointestinal tract allowed the llama to adapt to its habitat in the high altitudes of the Andean mountains, at heights above 3,800 m.
In the mountains, there are two seasons, dry (May to November) and wet (December to April). Most of the available food is fibrous plants that are very hard to digest. The situation gets even worse during the dry season as plants become woodier and lignified. And yet, llamas thrived in this environment.
In this article, we will explain the llama’s digestive system and its major diseases.
Llama’s Digestive System
Llama’s digestive system breaks down food into nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. These nutrients then get absorbed into the bloodstream so the body can use them for energy, growth, and repair. The solid food waste gets eliminated.
Llama’s digestive system consists of organs like the lips, mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, and liver.
Lips And Mouth
Lips, teeth, tongue, and mouth are the first organs that start the digestion process in llamas.
A llama has highly flexible lips it grabs food with. The upper lip is split by a cleft called the philtrum. The muscle called levator nasolabialis controls the movement of the upper lip. It is very sensitive and the llama uses it to investigate potential feed before grabbing or biting. The lower lip has no unique characteristics.
A llama also has a small mouth. There are teeth and a tongue inside of it.
The tongue in llamas is not very mobile. In a 330 lbs heavy male (150 kg), the tongue is around 8 inches long (20 cm) and 1.2 inches wide (3 cm). The llama will rarely extend it outside of the mouth and will not use it for prehension of the food.
Llamas have 30-32 permanent teeth and 20 – 22 milk teeth. They have incisors, canines, and cheek teeth. The first permanent cheek teeth appear at 6 to 9 months of age, while another pair shows by 2 years of age. The first permanent front teeth appear at 2 years, the next at 3 years, and the last pair around the year 6. Canines appear around the age of 2 and 7. Their sharp teeth can create serious injuries.
There are three pairs of major salivary glands in llamas, the parotid, mandibular, and sublingual. They are very similar to those of cattle, sheep, and goats. Salivary glands play an important role in digestion as they make saliva which helps moisten food. This allows llamas to swallow food more easily.
The primary function of the llama’s esophagus is to carry food and liquid from its mouth to the stomach. The esophagus can be up to four feet long (1.2 m) in adult llamas. It connects to the first compartment of the stomach.
There has been much controversy as to how to classify the stomach of llamas and other South American camelids as many scientists use different terminology when describing it.
Llamas have a stomach that has 3 compartments, C1, C2, and C3. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach that consists of the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum; llamas lack the distinct separation between omasum and abomasum.
Figure: Photographs of a llama (Lama Glama) stomach complex fixated in situ (with both the C1 and the C3 opened for access to the inside). Top: lateral right view (esophagus pointing towards the right side of the picture). Bottom left: dorsal view (esophagus pointing towards the top of the picture). Bottom right: frontal view (esophagus opening pointing towards the viewer). Note the relationships of the C2 to both the C1 and the C3 compartments. The C3 is located cranially, ventrally, and caudally to the C2.
Because of that, llamas are not considered true ruminants.
The first department, the rumen, is the largest and takes about 80% of the total volume of the stomach. It has no digestive enzymes – it is a fermentation chamber full of bacteria. In this part, the food is fermented and cellulose converted into digestible nutrients.
The second compartment, the reticulum, is where the llama absorbs nutrients and water from the food. It is a lot smaller than rumen, and the animal can regurgitate food from this chamber and further rechew it.
The third compartment, the abomasum, is full of what we know as stomach acids. It consists of parts divided into fifths; the final fifth has glands that secrete digestive enzymes and acid. This is where the food gets broken down.
We have a full article on the stomach structure of the llama. Read it here.
Llamas have a small and a large intestine.
The small intestine of a llama consists of three parts: the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum. It helps further digest food coming from the stomach. The main function of the small intestine is to break down food, absorb nutrients needed for the body, and get rid of unnecessary components.
In a 300-pound llama (140 kg) the small intestine is around 39.5 ft long (12 m). Out of those, the duodenum is less than 3.3 ft long (1 m), the jejunum is around 33 ft (10 m), and the ileum is 3.3 ft in length (1 m).
The large intestine of a llama consists of the following parts: the cecum, large colon, and small colon. The main function of the large intestine is to reabsorb as much water as possible, dehydrate and store fecal material.
In an adult llama, the large intestine is 24.6 ft long (7.5 m). Out of those, the cecum is 3.9 inches long and 2 inches in diameter (10 by 5 cm), the large colon is around 5 ft long (1.5 m), and the small colon is around 20 ft long (6 m) and approximately 1 inch in diameter (2.5 cm).
All the blood that is leaving the stomach and intestines needs to pass through the liver. The liver processes this blood, breaks down, balances, and creates the nutrients. It plays a key role in digestion, as it produces and excretes bile. Bile’s primary function in the digestive system is to break down fats.
The liver neutralizes toxic elements from the metabolism and then transforms them into recycled nutrients and expels them via feces or urine.
The llama’s liver is 3.3 pounds heavy (1.5 kg) which is around 1.5% of its body weight. It is 15.8 inches long (40 cm) and around 12 inches wide (30 cm).
Llamas do not have a gallbladder like other animals.
Llama’s Digestive System Disorders
Llamas can suffer from different digestive disorders. Digestive illnesses are among the leading causes of death in New World camelids and account for approximately one-quarter of both fatal and nonfatal sicknesses in these species.
Several signs might help diagnose and create a treatment plan for a llama.
These signs include anorexia, depression, abdominal distension, subnormal temperature, increased pulse and respiration, and others.
A llama might show a lack or loss of appetite for food, inability to swallow, or involuntarily regurgitate the contents of its stomach. Sometimes the animal will be bloated or have constipation and defecation problems. All of these signs can be used to determine the best treatment for the animal.
When it comes to lips disorders, a llama might have lacerated lips from barbed wire or other sharp objects in the environment. This might result in stomatitis, the inflammatory response to injury or disease of any oral tissue.
Usually, there aren’t many tongue disorders in llamas as the organ does not protrude from the mouth much. The long canines in llamas can puncture or lacerate the tongue in case the animal falls or strikes its head.
When it comes to dental issues, common ones are dental plaque, pigmentation of the teeth, alveolar periostitis, pulpitis, different teeth fractures, wear and tear, and different teeth defects.
Stomach disorders in llamas include stomach atony, gastritis, parasitism, gastric ulceration, and similar. The animals need to be provided with adequate medications, food, water, vitamins, and minerals.
Intestinal disorders in llamas include enteritis, obstruction, ulceration with and without perforation, colitis, proctitis, rectal prolapse, and GI parasitism. To cure these ailments, llamas need a correct fluid and/or electrolyte balance, sugars, and minerals. Sometimes, llamas might even require surgery.
There you have it, the digestive system of a llama, explained in depth.
Llama’s digestive system includes lips and mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, and liver. The main purpose of the system is to break down the food into nutrients, absorb them, and eliminate waste.
Because of the sensitive nature of their digestive system, llamas can suffer from different disorders of the mouth, stomach, and intestines.
The key is early diagnosis and adequate therapy for the animal.
 Fowler, Murray. Medicine and surgery of camelids. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
 Castro, A. N. C., et al. “Conformation and anatomical relations of the liver of llama (Lama Glama).” Anatomia, histologia, embryologia 38.2 (2009): 108-111.
 Esteban, L. R., and J. R. Thompson. “The digestive system of New World camelids-common digestive diseases of llamas.” Iowa State University Veterinarian 50.2 (1988): 9.
Preliminary evidence for a forestomach washing mechanism in llamas (Lama Glama) – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Photographs-of-a-llama-Lama-glama-stomach-complex-fixated-in-situ-with-both-the-C1-and_fig1_352464532 [accessed 21 Jan, 2022]