If you listen to all the different points of view it can get confusing. The best approach is to first ensure a good, healthy, varied diet. Start there.
HAY: This should be the staple of your camels’ diet; good, clean, fresh hay. The various grass hays are best. Oat hay and others can be good too, if your camels like oat hay. The best staple hay is good quality grass. Never feed your camels a staple of only alfalfa hay. Some alfalfa is fine, and a good dietary addition. Camels love alfalfa so there’s the temptation to give them only that, or overly much of it. If you do you’ll most likely run into trouble further down the line. Alfalfa is rich in minerals and protein. Camels are suited to a much milder diet. Too rich a diet is risky. Without going into all the details of alfalfa and its risks, suffice it to say that if over-used, or if alfalfa is your staple hay it’s like raising your kids on protein shakes. Big problems later.
A portion of alfalfa mixed with grass hay is excellent. 70% grass to 30% alfalfa is ideal. Anywhere between 50/50 and 80/20 is basically good. More grass than alfalfa is always best, and periods of no alfalfa, and only grass, is a good idea.
GRAIN: A lot of people give their camels too much grain. Like Alfalfa grain is a rich food for camels, and less nutritious than alfalfa. Its fine in moderation, but when given in excess it will undermine overall good health.
PELLETED FEED: Can be good. Depends on manufacturing quality, freshness, and nutritional content. There are some good pelleted llama feeds readily available, which are fine for camels, too. There are some good pelleted horse and cattle feeds as well. Like with grain pelleted feeds are best given as an addition rather than the basis of the diet.
FRESH BROWSE: Camels love fresh browse. If they don’t have lots of natural browse to range over it’s good to bring it to them. If not a lot, at least a little, often, makes a difference. Various pine boughs and needles, oak branches and oak leaves, acorns, willows, bamboo, blackberry, thistle, muellein, poison oak, tall grasses and lots of others. Keep away from poisonous plants of course. Know the species you’re offering.
FRUITS & VEGGIES: Pretty much whatever you can eat they might eat.
SALT: Salt is a big one for camels. They love it and lots of it. Solid salt blocks are ok, but it takes a lot of licking for a camel to get much from it. Loose salt is much better; they’ll eat it by the mouthful. The best salt is organic mined mineral salt or quality sea salt. The minerals are important to overall nutrition and health. Free choice loose salt should be available pretty much all the time.
WATER: It goes without saying. Fresh, clean, water should be available 24 hours a day. In the wild, to survive, camels will endure all kinds of water quality, including salt water. But they do best with fresh rain or river water.
SUPPLEMENTS: With a good variety of all the above being supplied there shouldn’t be much need for additional supplements. But there may be some. Certain individual camels may have their own peculiar needs for extra supplementation, which can be determined through relevant blood-work, hair analysis, applied kinesiology (muscle testing) and careful observation of the camels. A commonly needed supplement in many parts is selenium. This is an important mineral for proper growth and physiological functioning and is often deficient in soils and agricultural feeds. The best thing here is to do a blood test to see if there is a deficiency in your camel(s). If so your vet will advise. Selenium supplementation can be given orally or via injection.
PROBIOTICS: Healthy intestinal flora supports healthy digestion and assimilation of food. It’s not essential to supplement daily but good to offer periodically. Find a good brand. Keep it fresh. Definitely good to give during and after a camel is stressed.
TREATS: Good, basic, easy, healthy treats include apples, carrots, dates, melon rinds, grapes, wholewheat bread & muffins, horse cookies, horse treats, acorns. There are many possibilities, based on taste, preference and resources. Another treat is alfalfa hay given occasionally for a special meal…
EATING MANNERS: There are right ways and wrong ways to feed treats and food in general. As the food provider you must be in control. Your camel(s) should be permitted to overrun you, push you around and get away with demands on you. They should be respectful, polite, willing to wait, able to listen, able to back off the food when asked. Feeding should be safe, happy, and pleasurable for both you and the camel. Above all it should be safe. More about this can be found in the upcoming pages on developing respectful relationships and training.
PERSPECTIVE: Consider a camel’s native habitat and food sources. Their ancestry comes out of very harsh environments. They’ve adapted to eating and making use of often poor quality foods (from conventional standards). We need to be sensitive to this when designing the diet we will provide them with. Not too rich, and no big sudden changes to the diet is best. But do provide good quality food, and as fresh as possible.
Camels have three stomachs and are considered “ruminant-like”, as their digestive system functions similarly to true ruminants. A healthy, happy, camel has a powerful digestive system. In the desert, to survive sometimes, they are capable of trying to eat anything that might have food value. Old canvas, dried carcasses of deceased animals (yes, they’ll consume meat sometimes, if needed) wood, and so on. So, a bit like goats they’ll sometimes impress you with their dietary range.
HUMPS: Contrary to popular myth the camel’s hump(s) aren’t big containers of water. The humps are comprised of fat tissue, a reservoir against famine. The humps also serve as a heat sink in winter. And in the height of desert summer they help to disperse heat.
Camels can endure long periods without food and water but to do this they must be adapted for it. Camels raised and cared for in the west in domestic situations can’t automatically do what a wild, drought adapted camel can. So domestic camels must be watered and fed regularly, daily.
How camels manage to survive long periods without food and water is due to their amazing physiology, which is extremely adaptive. Their whole physiological system becomes very conservative in its functions; metabolism slows, blood can run thin despite high levels of dehydration, fluids are recycled internally, and so on. Interestingly, some donkey breeds can also go a similarly long time without food and water if desert adapted…