Llamas and Alpacas Shine as Therapy Animals

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May 19, 2016 | 12,141 views

Story at-a-glance

  • Rojo, a llama, and Napoleon, an alpaca, have made more than 1,000 therapy visits to hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and schools near their home in Portland, Oregon
  • Llamas and alpacas can be very friendly, curious and social, and many enjoy being around people
  • They’re typically gentle creatures, and their cute and unusual appearance and soft fur represent other characteristics that make them naturals in therapy settings

By Dr. Becker

Rojo and Napoleon have made more than 1,000 therapy visits to hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and schools near their home in Portland, Oregon.

Everyone who sees them reportedly falls in love with these soft, cuddly animals—but they’re not dogs; they’re a 400-pound llama (Rojo) and his friend Napoleon, an alpaca.

Only 14 llamas are registered as therapy animals in the U.S.,1 but perhaps there should be more. Llamas are relatives of camels. They’re domestic animals that have been used as pack animals by natives of the Andes Mountains for centuries.2

Alpacas, which are relatives of llamas, are also domestic animals, but they’re typically raised for their soft wool. Both llamas and alpacas can be very friendly, curious and social, and many enjoy being around people.

They’re typically gentle creatures, and their cute and unusual appearance and soft fur represent other characteristics that make them naturals in therapy settings.

Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas

Rojo and Napoleon of Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas are two of the most famous therapy animals in the U.S. According to Mountain Peaks, “Rojo, is ranked as the #1 “Beyond the Showring” PR llama in the world, according to the International Lama Registry.”3

The animals have completed the Animal-Assisted Therapy Certification process and travel around the Pacific Northwest to help people in need. Their owners, mother-daughter team Lori and Shannon Gregory, originally chose the animals so they wouldn’t have to keep mowing their 2.5-acre lawn.

Today, the team has five llamas and four alpacas that visit rehab facilities, children’s hospitals, senior communities and schools, bringing fun, joy and happiness with them. Lori told CNN:4

"When we first got certified with therapy for Rojo, I thought 'oh this will be fun’ …

The first visit that we did, Shannon had him on the lead, and was taking him into a rehab facility. And I was kind of on his backside with all the nurses, and as she would take him in along the bedsides, I would hear them getting so excited.

They said 'wow, Herald hasn't spoken in a month and I heard him say he's cute!' Or, 'look, Helen is trying to sit up and she hasn't moved for weeks.' Every room we were going in to, it was like seeing miracles happen."

Rojo and Napoleon are particularly famous for their “carrot kisses.” If you put a carrot between your lips, they’ll gently remove it with a “kiss.”5 

What Are the Benefits of Animal-Assisted Therapy?

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is the notion that animals can help humans to overcome, or at least cope with, health problems (both physical and emotional).

It may involve patients caring for an animal, as is often the case in equine therapy, or it can involve animals brought into health care settings to interact with patients individually or in groups, as is the case with Rojo and Napoleon.

AAT can be used in a variety of settings, such as comforting patients undergoing medical procedures or children who have been abused. Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder may also benefit from AAT, as may people with chronic pain, Alzheimer’s disease or various disabilities.

One systematic review found AAT led to improvements for all psychosocial outcomes (including cognitive, behavioral, social and emotional components) among people, primarily children and adolescents, with intellectual disability.6

Other research has found adults recovering from joint-replacement therapy who used AAT (canine therapy, in this case) used 50 percent less pain medication.7 As for what a visit with Rojo or Napoleon may entail, Mountain Peaks explained:8

“Research has shown that animals help humans by acting as social bridges, reducing blood pressure, directing thoughts outward, and serving as strong motivators for accomplishing difficult tasks.

Our therapy teams might take a walk with an adolescent struggling with difficult issues, or motivate a patient recovering from a stroke to reach farther, or calm a child with autism so that they can focus and achieve new goals.

By offering friendship and warm touch, our llamas help alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure and reduce stress. Their presence brings a sense of normalcy to institutional settings.”

Some People Compare Llamas to Dogs ‘Without the Hyperness’

Llamas are often so affectionate and expressive that owners compare them to dogs. In 2013, The New York Times even proclaimed, “The llama is ‘in’” and quoted one llama owner as saying, “They have all of the good things about dogs, but none of the hyperness.”9 (Unlike dogs, however, if you want a llama for a pet you’ll need to live in an area that’s zoned for livestock, which is typically what they’re considered.)

The fact that llamas are calm and quiet is part of what makes them such excellent therapy animals—but they’re not always quiet. Llamas make clicking noises, gargling noises and humming sounds, the latter of which is particularly done between mothers and babies.

And as for the commonly held belief that llamas constantly spit, this is not done indiscriminately (and Rojo and Napoleon don’t, or they wouldn’t make very good therapy animals). Llamas tend to spit at other llamas—rarely at people, unless provoked.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 Pet Partners, How to Become a Registered Therapy Animal Team
  • 2 National Geographic, Llamas
  • 3, 8 Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas & Alpacas
  • 4, 5 CNN March 15, 2016
  • 6 Res Dev Disabil. 2016 Feb-Mar;49-50:322-38.
  • 7 Science Daily November 17, 2009
  • 9 The New York Times July 4, 2013