With their fluffy fleece and doe-eyed expressions, alpacas seem like they must be distant cousins of goats. But while they share some common traits, alpacas and goats have quite a few differences when it comes to their history, physical characteristics, habitat and housing needs, fiber production, feeding requirements, and temperament.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Alpacas and goats are two very different domesticated herd animals. While both are livestock that can provide fiber, milk, and meat, alpacas are more closely related to camels while goats are small bovids.

Key differences include their size, habitat, diet, fiber type, and temperament.

Origin and History

Domestication of Alpacas

Alpacas have been domesticated in South America for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence shows alpacas were domesticated around 6,000 years ago in the Andean highlands of Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

The indigenous people of the Andes, such as the Aymara and Quechua, raised alpacas for their soft, warm fleece. Alpaca fleece was highly prized and used to make clothing and blankets. The Incas further developed alpaca husbandry and fleece production.

Alpacas became a vital part of the Incan economy and culture.

When the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire in the early 1500s, they recognized the value of alpacas. The Spanish continued to raise alpacas and export alpaca fiber to Europe. During the colonial era, selective breeding of alpacas led to animals with more fleece.

Today’s domestic alpacas are the result of over 6,000 years of domestication and breeding.

Domestication of Goats

Goats are believed to be the earliest domesticated livestock species. According to archaeological evidence, goats were first domesticated in western Iran around 10,000 years ago. Ancient farmers tamed wild goats for their milk, meat, skins and hair.

From Iran, goats gradually spread to other parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia as early farming communities expanded.

The ancient Egyptians and Romans kept goats on a large scale. Goat hides were used to make water bags and parchment for writing. Goats were an important source of milk and cheese. As civilizations developed, goat husbandry was adapted to different environments from dry deserts to cold mountain regions.

When Europeans began colonizing other continents in the late 15th century, they brought their domestic goats with them. Spanish colonists introduced domestic goats to the Caribbean and Latin America, where feral goats still roam today.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, goat raising spread around the world to Australia, New Zealand and North America.

Through centuries of domestication, farmers have bred goats for desirable traits like higher milk production, better meat quality, and finer hair (cashmere or angora goats). The ubiquitous domestic goat is one of humanity’s oldest animal partners.

Physical Features

Alpacas have a slender, muscular build with soft fleece that comes in 22 natural colors. Their necks are long and slender, supporting delicate heads with slender ears, large eyes, and voluptuous lips. Adult alpacas stand at around 36 inches at the withers and weigh between 100-175 pounds.

Here are some key physical features of alpacas:

  • Their fleece is very soft, fine, and hypoallergenic. It is prized for making high-quality garments.
  • Alpacas have a three-chambered stomach designed for digesting tough vegetation.
  • They have padded feet with two toes that help them navigate rocky Andean Mountain terrain.
  • Alpacas communicate through body language and soft sounds like humming, clicking, and alarm calls.
  • Alpacas live 15-20 years on average.

Goats are stocky, sturdy animals with horns on their heads (except some breeds like Pygmy goats). Their coats can be short, long, straight, or curly. Adult goats grow to between 20-30 inches tall and weigh around 125-250 pounds. Here are some defining physical traits of goats:

  • Goats have horizontal slit-shaped pupils that give them excellent peripheral vision.
  • They have four-chambered stomachs allowing them to thrive on woody shrubs and weeds.
  • Goats are sure-footed and agile with cloven hooves, helping them climb and balance in rocky areas.
  • Goats have short tails that stick up allowing them to communicate their mood.
  • Many goat breeds have beards and wattles on their necks and chins.
  • Goats live 10-15 years on average.

Habitat and Housing

Alpaca Habitat Preferences

Alpacas are native to the Andean mountain region of South America, where they thrive in high altitudes between 11,000 and 16,000 feet. They prefer cool, dry climates and require less water than many other livestock animals.

Alpacas are quite adaptable and have been successfully raised in a variety of climates and terrains, from the Rocky Mountains to the hot, humid southeastern United States.

When kept as livestock, alpacas do best with access to shelter from hot sun and heavy rain or snow. Barns or three-sided sheds provide protection from the elements. Trees and shrubs in pastures give shelter from sun and wind. Alpacas prefer dirt or grass floors over concrete or wood.

Their toe pads splay when they walk, acting as shock absorbers, so softer ground is gentler on their feet. Alpacas like having piles of loose dirt or dust in their housing, where they can take dirt baths to clean and cool their skin.

Goat Habitat Preferences

Domestic goats are descended from wild goats that lived in mountainous regions of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. They are naturally adapted to living on steep, rocky slopes at high elevations. Goats thrive in hot, dry climates but can survive in a variety of conditions.

Goats need shelter from wet conditions and extreme cold or heat. A three-sided shed with a roof provides adequate shelter in most climates. The flooring should be dirt or sand, not concrete, to cushion goats’ feet. Goats also need areas of shade, which can be provided by trees, sheds or shade cloths.

Access to elevated surfaces like boulders, stumps or play structures allows goats to climb.

Goats prefer well-drained soils and do not do well in muddy conditions. Deep bedding hay or straw should be provided in any enclosed shelters to keep goats up out of the mud. All housing should be well-ventilated to prevent respiratory issues.

Goats appreciate having access to enrichment items like large tree branches, toys or cable spools for climbing and mental stimulation.

Diet and Nutrition

Alpaca Dietary Needs

Alpacas are herbivores and thrive on a diet of grass hay, with some supplemental feeding of grains or pellets when needed (1). Their digestive system, with three stomach compartments, is designed to extract nutrients from fibrous vegetation.

On average, a non-pregnant, non-lactating alpaca will consume 1.5-2% of its body weight per day in dry matter. This translates to about 2-3 pounds of hay per day for an adult alpaca weighing 150 pounds (2).

Providing consistent access to quality grass hay is crucial for alpacas. Their diet should have a calcium to phosphorus ratio between 2:1 and 7:1 for proper bone growth and health (3). Alpacas also need salt and mineral supplements, containing copper, selenium, zinc, and vitamins A, D & E. These are especially important before and after breeding, birthing, and weaning crias (baby alpacas).

Some alpaca owners choose to supplement the grass hay diet with grain mixes or alpaca pellets. However, overfeeding grains can cause digestive upset and obesity. It’s generally recommended to limit grain feeding to 0.5-1 pound per day for adults during stressful times, lactation, or wintertime weight maintenance (4).

Goat Dietary Needs

As natural browsers, goats enjoy eating a variety of fibrous vegetation, including grass, shrubs, trees, and weeds. The optimum goat diet consists of roughage from good quality grass hay, browse, or grazed pasture (5). This should make up a minimum of 70% of their daily dry matter intake.

The rest can come from goat-specific grain mixes, pellets or supplements.

Goats need access to clean water, salt and minerals at all times. These minerals should contain calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc, selenium and more. Mineral deficiency can cause conditions like anemia, weakness, and bone abnormalities (6).

Goats also require monthly copper boluses and selenium supplements to prevent deficiencies.

Some key differences from alpacas – goats have a stronger nutritional need for copper, while alpacas are more prone to copper toxicity. And since goats are more inquisitive browsers, owners need to take care to fence off poisonous plants from their enclosures.

Fiber Production

Alpaca Fiber

Alpacas produce some of the finest and softest natural fibers in the world. Their hypoallergenic fleece is prized for its soft, luxurious texture and luster. Alpacas are sheared every year and each shearing usually yields around 5-10 pounds of fiber per alpaca. There are two types of alpaca fleece:

  • Suri fiber: Silky, lustrous and resembling pencil-locks. The fibers hang straight and separate from the body.
  • Huacaya fiber: Crimpy, dense and wool-like. The fibers have a curly crimp and cling closely to the body.

Huacaya is the more common type, accounting for about 90% of alpaca fleece. Suri is rarer and more prized for its sleekness. Alpaca fiber comes in a variety of natural colors from white to brown to black. It contains no lanolin, so it is hypoallergenic and won’t irritate sensitive skin.

Alpaca fiber is also odorless, water-resistant, and flame-retardant. It is exceptionally warm, making it ideal for luxurious garments as well as blankets, rugs and other home goods.

Goat Fiber

Certain breeds of goats also produce fine fibers that can be used for textiles. The most common type is cashmere, which comes from Cashmere goats and is one of the most delectable natural fibers. Cashmere goats produce a soft, fine, downy undercoat that is combed out during molting season.

Unlike sheep wool, the fibers are not crimped but are straight. Cashmere is exceptionally soft, light and warm. Other goat fibers include mohair and pashmina.

Mohair comes from Angora goats and has a silk-like luster and wavy curl. Mohair is valued for its strength, sheen, insulation and dye-ability. Pashmina comes from a special breed of Himalayan mountain goat. Their winter undercoat produces Cashmere-like fibers that are incredibly soft and warm.

However, pashmina production is much lower than cashmere and alpaca due to the small population of these rare goats.

Temperament and Behavior

Alpacas are gentle, calm, and docile animals. They are very social herd animals that live in family groups consisting of a dominant male, females, and crias (young alpacas). Alpacas communicate through body language and soft humming. Here are some of their key behaviors:

  • Alpacas are gentle and friendly. They are curious and will approach people, but may shy away if you move too quickly.
  • They spend much of their time grazing on grass or hay. Alpacas are ruminants and spend a lot of time regurgitating their food and re-chewing it before fully digesting it.
  • Alpacas show submission by lying down or “cushing.” Males will fight by neck wrestling to establish dominance, but aggression is generally rare.
  • Alpacas make a soft humming sound to communicate with each other. The humming can express curiosity, fear, or warning.
  • Alpacas warn each other of danger by making sharp, noisy inhalations and followed by spitting. Their spit can spray up to 10 feet.
  • Alpacas wag their tails when agitated. The flicking tail helps keep flies away from their rear.
  • Alpacas go to the communal dung pile to defecate. This helps keep their grazing area clean.
  • Alpacas seek shade and cool areas on hot days. They drink 1-2 gallons of water per day on average.

Alpacas are intelligent and can be trained. Their gentle nature and herd mentality make them suitable as pets and for interacting with children. Owners do need to shear their alpacas annually and be prepared to rescue crias during birthing when needed.

Goat Behavior

Goats are very energetic, curious, and agile creatures. They are also quite intelligent and social. Here are some key traits about goat behavior:

  • Goats are very active and playful. They love to run, jump, and climb on things.
  • Goats are quite mischievous as well. They will test boundaries and figure out ways to open gates or latches.
  • Goats have a herd mentality. They like being in groups and interact through head butting and mounting.
  • Establishing a hierarchy is important. Goats butt heads and mount each other to determine the herd pecking order.
  • Goats express interest by pointing their ears forward. They show aggression by pinning ears back.
  • Goats make many different vocalizations from soft murmurs to loud bleats depending on their needs.
  • Goats stand on their hind legs to reach leaves and branches higher up on trees and bushes.
  • Goats are very curious and will investigate anything new in their environment by nibbling and tasting.

Goats are more independent-minded and mischievous than alpacas. Their intelligence, agility, and social nature make them fun but challenging pets. Goats require sturdy fencing, shelter, and items to climb and play on to meet their energetic needs.

Conclusion

While alpacas and goats share a few common traits, they have some notable differences when it comes to their origin, anatomy, habitat requirements, fiber output, nutritional needs, and demeanor. Alpacas are calmer and more delicate, needing space to roam and a very specific lower-protein diet.

Goats are heartier generalists that can thrive on browse and pasture across diverse landscapes. Both can provide small-scale farmers with fiber and fertilizer, but alpacas need much more specialized care.

Considering their respective characteristics helps clarify which species makes the most sense for a given farming operation.

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