Do Deer Antlers Have Nerves?

Do deer antlers have nerves? Fully grown deer antlers do not have nerves. 

During the growing phase of the deers’ antlers, they are covered by velvet. That hairy skin is equipped with a large number of blood cells and nerve endings to help with the speedy growth. 

How do Deer Antlers Grow

Antlers are unique to the Cervidae family only. 

You can mostly find antlers on males, except for reindeer (in the US known as caribou), although there are cases where increased testosterone levels cause some female deer from other species of deer to grow antlers.

Despite, what many people believe, deer antlers are not the same as horns you see on bovines, like cows or antelopes. Horns, unlike antlers, contain keratine, which makes them similar to human hair or nails. 

When the male deer is born, two flat bones are growing on its forehead within few months. They are called pedicles, and when the buck reaches a certain age, they develop into antlers every spring.

The pedicles come from a tissue called the periosteum, and they don’t fall off after rutting season with the rest of the antlers. Instead, they are a permanent fixture and regrow the deer’s antlers following season.

The growth begins with the tip, and at the beginning, it is just the cartilage.

The deer notices when the days are getting longer, and this “ticks off” specific brain cells to alert the deer of the time to prepare for rutting season. The antler’s growth usually takes around 100 days. 

It is the fastest process of bone growth in the world. It can proceed at a speed of a quarter of an inch every day. The development of the antlers requires a lot of energy and nutrients from the deer. 

Even with the best diet, deer is not prepared to fill the growth requirements for its antlers. They compensate with the tissue from the parts of their own body.

The ribs and shoulder blades usually lose their porosity, transferring the minerals to growing antlers.

When the antlers are fully grown, the deer fills all the borrowed minerals in their body, and by the time of the rut, the bone structure is back to its total capacity.

After the deer grows its antlers, blood transport through the velvet into the cartilage slows down and eventually stops. 

During the decline of blood and nutrient flow, the cartilage in antlers starts to turn into hard bone. 

When the blood flow stops completely, the velvet starts to die and peel off. What’s left underneath is fully formed antlers.

Do Deer Antlers Have Feeling?

Do Deer Antlers Have Nerves

Deer antlers are made of cartilage, bone, skin, blood vessels, and nerves.

The pedicles are covered in velvet, which is highly vascular skin (having a large number of veins) covered in small short hair, and it supplies oxygen and nutrients to growing antler bone. 

During the time of antler growth, the velvet and the cartilage are soft and sensitive. The velvet covering growing antlers is filled with nerve cells to help deer “feel” the size of its antlers and prevent any injury while it traverses the forest, hitting trees and bushes.

The antlers themselves don’t have any feeling, even in the cartilage state, but the surrounding velvet, as stated previously, has a lot of nerve cells and blood vessels, which makes it sensitive to the touch. 

During the growth, the blood flow in this part of deer anatomy is immense, and antlers emanate a lot of heat.

When the growth is finished and the cartilage calcifies into a bone, the velvet loses the blood flow.

Many people think that rubbing the velvet of the antlers is caused by an itch. When the rubbing occurs, the velvet tissue is dead, and therefore there is no feeling in it. That includes any itching. 

The deer scratches the antlers to strengthen its neck and leave marks on the trees to warn off potential opposition. 

Fully formed antlers are dead bones, and therefore don’t have any blood vessels or nerve cells and don’t have any feeling anymore.

Do Deer Have Veins in Their antlers?

Fully formed deer antlers are dead bones. Therefore they don’t have any blood vessels.

Antlers in the growth stage are another matter. When the deer antlers are still growing, they are made of cartilage and pre-cartilage. While growing, they need a lot of nutrition and blood to keep up the growth ratio. 

One of the blood suppliers is the forementioned velvet. But not many people know the antlers themselves also have veins.

During the cartilage stage, the arteries travel along the shaft of the antler from the pedicle towards the tip. Then smaller veins branch out from the main arteries and travel through the pre-cartilage and the tip layer, called the dermis, into the center of the antler.

As the cartilage matures, the formation of the blood vessels regresses.

Do Deer Feel Pain in Their Antlers?

During the growth process, as mentioned, deer antlers are very sensitive. The velvet covering the new antler tissue is filled with blood vessels and nerve endings. The deer can feel pain if it hits the tree branch too hard with the growing antler covered in velvet. 

It is the main reason why deer avoid any fights using the antlers during that period. The antlers are also prone to breaking because cartilage during the growing stage is softer than the bone.

And a curious fact is that when a deer breaks the tip of the antler damaging the nerves while in the growth stage, the same tip is usually missing the following season, even though the antler grew anew.

After the velvet is off from the antlers and they turn into dead bone tissue, there is no feeling in them. It would be somewhat counterproductive for deer to use antlers as weapons when they could hurt a lot. 

Why do Deer Shed Antlers?

Do Deer Antlers Have Nerves

The process of growing antlers is initiated by raising testosterone levels in the deer’s body. After the rut, when testosterone levels drop rapidly down, antlers undergo temporary osteoporosis

It means that cells called osteoclasts are activated at the base of an antler, where it meets the pedicle. The osteoclasts are specific giant cells with more than one nuclei that resorb the bone.

The bone deteriorates and falls off. 

The more mature, healthy bucks with bigger antlers usually shed their antlers earlier than smaller ones. Some smaller and weaker male deer were seen with antlers well into the winter months.

Is it Painful For Deer to Shed Antlers?

The deer do not feel pain when the process of shedding is completed.

Sometimes, in a rare occurrence, when the antler gets snagged before it is ready to come off by itself. In that stage, the pain should be minimal, as the antler is already dead. 

The only place that would still have any nerve receptors is the pedicle. Often, when the antlers fall off, there could be minimal traces of blood visible on the pedicle’s surface. 

The pedicles scab few hours after shedding, and the process of growing antlers starts again.

Conclusion

The deer antlers are a fantastic accessory. They serve deer many purposes, fighting other male deer during rutting season being probably the most important one.

And what’s more interesting, they are the only known to humans continuously regrowing bone tissue in the mammal kingdom. 

Deer go through a lot of hassle to grow antlers. They often sacrifice the health of their bones to keep the speedy process going.

The antlers go through different stages throughout their growth. They start as little flat buds. Then they turn into fragile cartilage filled with blood vessels and covered by velvety skin with many nerve endings. 

At one of the final stages, they are just a dead bone adorning the deer’s head like a crown. And at the end, they finish on the forest ground, ready to be picked up by wildlife or shed hunters.

Then the process starts again.

Sources

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/(SICI)1097-0185(19990901)256:1%3C14::AID-AR3%3E3.0.CO;2-A