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Do Deer Feel Pain in Their Antlers?

Does a deer feel pain in their antlers? No, because the antlers are done growing. The reason being is the area’s only source for nutrients has gone away. Thus, the antlers have died as the nerve endings inside no longer serve any purpose. Eventually, they will break or fall off in due time.

A deer does have nerve endings all throughout its body, much like a human being. So, there is no evidence to believe that a deer does not feel pain in other parts of its body. But just not in their antlers after they have fully grown. They will not feel shocked or confused should a portion of their dead antlers chip away or fall off. Usually, this area will not bleed out when this type of injury occurs. 

However, if the antlers have been prematurely (contact injury or getting hooked onto a tree limb) ripped off, then the deer will feel some pain. And the main reason is the action has disturbed the deer’s skin and underlying structure. Antlers are an extension of their skull, so any unexpected removal of them will cause some discomfort for the animal. The accidental removal of the antlers will make the area bleed. But if the break was clean, then it will not cause the deer to suffer much pain.

To learn more about deer antlers, let’s take an in-depth look at the biology behind the growing and shedding process.

How do Antlers Grow?

Antlers are easily the most recognizable characteristic of a deer. Their rapid growth, then sudden discarding of them make antlers very intriguing among outdoor enthusiasts. 

If you have ever observed their behavior in the woods, you may notice a sudden movement away from a tree or bush. Often, we have mistaken this action for being startled by our presence near them in their own surroundings. Unfortunately, a sensitive part of the deer’s (velvet) skin came in contact with a foreign object.

This is the area where a deer’s antlers will form over a period of several months. Velvet skin is a nerve-rich tissue that has multiple capillaries that produce the antler bones. So, a deer will take great care of this area by avoiding to bump into any outside objects (trees, branches, or bushes) during their walks. But the velvet skin is a very temporary condition in the entire transformation process. 

Most species of deer grow and shed their antlers each year. It is the fastest-growing part of a deer as they’re capable of growing an inch per day. The process begins in early spring and goes through mid-summer. Once the antlers have matured and grown to full size, then they begin hardening in early autumn before falling off in the winter. Then in the following spring, the process begins all over again.

Velvet is Vital to the Growth of Antlers

Antlers begin from bare tissue structures as they grow from two base points on top of the deer’s head. They’re called pedicles. During the growth of the antlers, this area is covered in a soft, hairy skin called velvet. It is a living tissue that is composed of nerve cells and blood vessels. Growing antlers are high in water content but low in dry matter. This composition will matter as the antler’s growth deteriorates over time. 

The velvet skin will surround the antlers as they look like soft cartilages at first. The skin protects and provides nutrients to the growing antlers. During this stage of the growing process, the velvet skin is more sensitive to pain than any other part of a deer’s body. Thus, a deer must learn to navigate the outdoor terrain and avoid any contact with objects that could cause them harm. 

In the summer months, a deer’s growing antlers may break off or chip if they become involved in a fight with another deer. You may see some blood in the aftermath, but it is very unlikely the deer felt any pain in their antlers. That is due to the velvet skin having blood vessels that carry nutrients to the area. This is crucial for the antlers to grow to full size. But have no fear as most deers recover quickly from their injuries. 

Here is a little known fact: If a deer breaks a spike off their fully developed set of antlers, then next year’s growth will have a broken or slightly obscure looking spike. Experts believe it will take two consecutive years before a deer can grow another full set of antlers. 

Also, do not be alarm by significant blood loss. It will not leave a scent to attract possible predators (cougars or bears) to where the deer are located. They’re very aware of their surroundings. In fact, deers do not eat meat, so they will use their antlers to gather fruits, nuts, and acorns off of trees and the ground. So, their keen sense of smell will alert them of a predator in the area. In different circumstances, that scent of blood would put a deer in danger for its life. But that threat is very minimal. 

However, mature deers will use their antlers to defend themselves in such an encounter. Often, they use them as a last resort for protection. Antlers can inflict severe injuries to a predator’s internal organs as a deer will use them much like a spear. Males will become defenseless once they shed their antlers. They will not get their aggressiveness back until the growing process begins in the following spring. 

Antlers’ Importance During Mating Season

Antlers have a vital role during a deer’s mating season. Often, their sole purpose is to attract a female deer and set their territory. All of this takes place during the summer months as a deer’s highest level of male testosterone occurs during this time. 

While their antlers are still growing, a male deer will display them to their female counterpart to gain some attention. The male deer will begin rubbing velvet skin off their antlers in preparation for mating purposes. Plus, they will spar with other male deers as they will use their antlers on one another to show dominance. Usually, the victor will claim their female companion.

Once the fall hits, the growth of the antlers tends to slow down. However, in early September, deers will begin their breeding season. This will last for most of the autumn months. This is the best period for breeding among deers. Dominant males with hardened antlers will achieve the highest fertilization rate for the season. 

Deers Shed Their Antlers in the Winter

Once they have fully grown in size, the antlers will get hardened as the edges are smooth and rounded. The reason deers shed their antlers is to conserve nutrients and energy. This will help to regulate their body temperature during the brutal winter months.

Usually, the entire shedding process takes approximately 2-3 weeks to complete. However, it will only take between 24-48 hours for the antlers to come off a deer’s head. Longer time may be needed if the deer is older or in poor physical condition. Often, the shedding process begins once the outdoor temperatures cool down from the hot days of the summer months. 

After the velvet skin has dried out, a deer’s antlers will get very itchy. You may see them rubbing their antlers on tree trunks and leave remnants of the velvet skin on the branches. From a human perspective, a deer may look like a person with a severe case of poison ivy. Do not be alarmed by the bloody appearance, as you will not see any visible indication of pain or discomfort with the animal. 

Over time, the base of the antlers will shut off blood supply to the velvet skin. The composition will consist of a high count of dry matter and low water content. The tissue beneath the antlers gradually disintegrates, which causes the antlers to loosen from the skull. You get the impression that the deer wants to get rid of them as fast as possible. This course of action weakens the tissue and bones of the velvet skin. 

Eventually, the antlers fall off as osteoblast (a cell that removes bone formation) will begin forming at the base. It will begin absorbing the calcium from the antlers, thus causing the bones to weaken. There is no pain or discomfort for the deer once the antlers have fallen to the ground.

The discarded antlers look very powdery and often are mistaken for fallen tree branches from a distance. However, once you come close, there is no mistaking them for anything other than antlers. 

And in a short time, the evolution process will take over once again in the spring. 

More reading on different types of deer