Health & Management / Ruminants Pain Management / Techniques and protocols OVERVIEW:
Pain Prevention for Deer Velvet Antler Removal:
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Introduction and General Information

Deer velvet antler removal is the removal from deer stags or bucks of the antler while it is still growing, usually during late spring/early summer in temperate deer species. During this stage of development the antler consists of warm, rapidly growing, blood-filled cartilaginous material with numerous nerve endings, which bleeds profusely if damaged. (J16.36.w2)

The procedure usually involves application of a tourniquet to the base of the antler, followed by removal of the antler, above the pedicle from which new growth occurs, using a suitable instrument such as a sharp, clean meat saw. (J16.36.w2)

Rubber tubing is preferable to cord or twine as a tourniquet, as it is less likely to produce permanent damage to vessels which may adversely affect antler growth in future years. (P24.72.w1)

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Reasons for the procedure

Removal of antlers in velvet from deer occurs in one of two situations:

1) Harvesting of antlers in velvet for sale as a product. (P24.72.w1)

2) Emergency removal to prevent suffering following injury to the antler. (B284.16.w16)

The main reason for removal is for the production of velvet antler. Velvet antler may be defined as "the whole of the antler removed at a precise stage to maximise the percentage of soft tissue (i.e. minimal calcification)." (J16.36.w2)

  • Removal of antlers from deer stags or bucks while the antler is in velvet is commonly carried out in some countries in order to produce the product antler velvet which is believed by some to have medicinal properties.
  • Velvet antler is a major product from deer farming in some countries such as New Zealand and Australia. (J16.36.w2, P24.72.w1)
    • Putative properties of velvet antler include stimulating and tonic, adrenogenic/gonadotrophic, haematopoietic, hypotensive/cardiovascular, anti-stress properties, growth stimulation, slowing of ageing and accelerated recovery from injury effects. (J16.36.w2)
  • In the UK, harvesting of velvet antler is prohibited under the welfare of Livestock (Deer) Order 1980 and associated legislation (Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, as amended, The Removal of Antlers in Velvet (Anaesthetics) Order 1980, Welfare of Livestock (Prohibited Operations) Regulations 1982). (J16.36.w2, B284.16.w16, D158)
    • Removal of velvet antlers is permitted in the UK for welfare purposes if the antlers have been damaged. (J16.36.w2, B284.16.w16)
    • Removal of antlers other than for welfare purposes is permitted only after the greater part of the velvet has been shed from the antlers. (J16.36.w2)

Antlers are also removed for reasons of safety. Stags or bucks with hard antlers may injure other individual within the herd and, especially for yearlings with their first spikes, present a particular danger to personnel. (P24.72.w1)

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Arguments against use of the procedure

  • Production of "velvet antler" involves the removal from live deer of antlers in velvet. These structures are growing tissue which are known to possess sensory innervation; the innervation has been well described. Behaviour of stags with antlers in velvet, including careful protection of the antlers from hard objects, as well as the persistent rubbing of the antler at the calcification/velvet shedding stage, show clearly that pain and sensation can be perceived from the antlers throughout the growing stage. Studies on velvet antler removal have shown that such removal is painful. (J14.42.w2)
  • Removal of velvet antlers from stags has been shown to be an aversive experience. (J10.40.w1)
  • While there is no doubt that there is a market for velvet antler products, it is questionable whether there is a need for such products. (J14.42.w1)
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Signs/Evidence of pain associated with the procedure

  • Antlers in velvet are well supplied with nerves, and sensitivity of the growing antler has been demonstrated by the use of electrostimulation. (P24.49.w3)
    • Velvet antlers are growing structures and studies on Cervus elaphus - Red deer (North American Elk) and Dama dama - Fallow Deer have confirmed that these are well innervated, mainly by the infratrochlear and zygomaticotemporal branches of the ophthalmic division of the trigeminal nerve (cranial nerve V (fifth)) (J10.27.w1) (supraorbital and temporal branches (P24.49.w3)) but also, in at least some individuals of both species, from the auriculopalpebral nerve. (J14.37.w1) It has been suggested (P24.49.w1, J10.27.w1) that branches from the cervical nerves may reach the pedicle, however later work indicates that branches from these nerves do not generally appear to reach the pedicle. (J14.37.w1)
  • Deer in which the velvet antler is subjected to an electrical stimulus, or to a "saw-cut" test (gentle application of a saw across the skin on the lateral aspect of the antler), and which have not received adequate analgesia, react behaviourally, with responses varying from slight head movement, flinching, muscle tension, or movement of the eye or facial muscles (score "1"), to struggling with the whole body in a "flight response (score "3"). (J10.48.w2)
  • When deer subjected to velvet antler removal (with local anaesthetic) were compared with those subjected to restraint but without antler removal, they showed; (J10.40.w1)
    • More struggling during the period of restraint; (J10.40.w1)
    • More head shaking and ear flicking in the three hours after the procedure; (J10.40.w1)
    • Less time spent eating in the three hours after the procedure; (J10.40.w1)
    • More time spent self-grooming in the three hours after the procedure; (J10.40.w1)
    • An increase in time spent sitting between 0 and 3 hours after the procedure; (J10.40.w1)
    • More time spent grazing in the evening following the procedure, possibly in compensation for the reduced eating earlier; (J10.40.w1)
    • Additionally, with first one antler removed then the other removed on another day, deer showed an increase in heart rate on the second occasion compared to the first occasion, while those twice restrained without antler removal showed a decrease in heart rate on the second occasion compared to heart rate on the first occasion. This was considered to indicate that the individuals found velvet antler removal to be an aversive procedure. (J10.40.w1)

Signs of stress which may be seen in animals undergoing velvet antler removal include excessive struggling, throwing the head around, laboured heavy breathing, panting, tongue lolling, excessive salivation, eyes bulging, and trembling/shaking. (J16.36.w2)

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Suggested methods of pain prevention

Local anaesthesia
  • Either a ring block is placed around the whole of the circumference of the antler or the two major nerves, the infratrochlear nerve and the zygomatico-temporal nerve, are blocked. (J16.36.w2)
    • In red deer the sites of the nerves is well described. In other species anatomical variation in innervation means that a ring block may be preferable. (J16.36.w2)
  • The animal may also be sedated, e.g. using 0.5 mg/kg xylazine for red deer. (J16.36.w2)
  • Recent studies have indicated that the most effective analgesia is produced by using a ring-block around the antler pedicle, applying 2% lidocaine at a rate of 1.0 - 1.2 ml per cm pedicle circumference, with a wait of at least two minutes after application of local anaesthetic before proceeding with antler removal. (J10.47.w1, J10.48.w2)
    • Lower doses of lidocaine in a ring-block, or regional anaesthesia (at either of two sites) of the infratrochlear, zygomaticotemporal and auriculopalpebral nerves, provided analgesia less consistently and in some individuals further local anaesthetic application was required. (J10.47.w1, J10.48.w2)
  • See: Antler Pedicle Block for further details

General anaesthesia:

  • Neuroleptanalgesia may be sufficient for harvesting of velvet antlers without additional local analgesia. (P24.49.w3)

Post-velvet antler removal analgesia:

  • It has been suggested that some pain may be felt once the local anaesthetic has worn off. (P61.62.w2)
  • If the post-surgical pain is of short duration then using local anaesthetic combinations including a relatively long-acting local anaesthetic may be effective. (P61.62.w2)
  • Alternatively it may be considered that use of a NSAID may be appropriate. (P61.62.w2)
    • Ketoprofen at 2 mg/kg bodyweight has been used for analgesia following velvet antler removal. (J290.32.w1, J290.32.w2)

In-paddock slaughter at optimum velvet antler harvest stage:

  • It has been suggested that an alternative to harvesting of velvet antlers would be to kill deer in the paddock (where this is allowed for venison harvest) at the time when the antlers are at the optimum stage for harvest of velvet antler. (P24.72.w1)

Other suggested methods:

Electronic analgesia (Electroanalgesia):

  • This involves placing electrodes at the base of the antler pedicel and applying an electrical current. (P61.62.w2)
  • Research indicates that this may reduce pain in some individuals, however in general it does not appear to produce sufficient analgesia, is not sufficiently repeatable, and it is in itself an aversive experience (i.e. application is a noxious experience). (P61.62.w2)
    • A study in wapiti (Cervus elaphus - Red deer (North American Elk)) compared the use of electroanalgesia, individually calibrated to each individual animal by an experienced operator and applied for four minutes prior to, and during, velvet antler removal, with local ring block anaesthesia using lidocaine. Behavioural and physiological measurements were used to compare the effectiveness of the two treatments. The study found that, for electroanalgesia, compared with local anaesthesia, significantly more individuals responded behaviourally to velvet antler removal, that heart rate increased significantly more over time, and that heart rate increased significantly more from baseline at times immediately prior to antler removal, immediately post-antler removal and at one minute after antler removal. The study concluded that electroanalgesia was a less effective method of analgesia than local anaesthesia using a lidocaine ring block and that application of electroanalgesia causes more discomfort than does application of local anaesthetic agent. (J14.42.w2)
  • This is NOT considered an appropriate method for pain alleviation. (P61.62.w2)

High pressure compression bands:

  • These have been approved for use on yearling stags in New Zealand. P61.62.w2)
    • Unpublished data indicated that one hour after application of the bands to yearling stags, velvet antlers could be removed without behavioural response to the removal. (P61.62.w2)
    • There is a lack of data regarding the potentially aversive effects which might occur due to "tourniquet pain" during the hour before the antlers are removed. (P61.62.w2)
  • Recent studies indicate that application of compression bands is itself a noxious stimulus and that such bands produce less effective analgesia than does a local anaesthetic ring block of the antler pedicle: (J14.43.w3, J290.32.w1, J290.32.w2)
    • A study comparing chemical local anaesthesia (lidocaine ring block) with compression using a high-tension rubber band in 32 elk (wapiti) concluded that compression was not an appropriate method of analgesia for velvet antler removal. The study found, using a combination of behavioural and physiological measurements, that application of compression may in itself be painful and that compression was less effective as a method of analgesia than was local anaesthetic ring block, when antlers were removed four minutes after application of either technique. (J14.43.w3)
    • A study comparing electroencephalogram (EEG) responses of lightly anaesthetised two-year-old red deer (Cervus elaphus - Red deer) stags to application of high pressure compression bands or lidocaine ring block of the pedicle (and control animals anaesthetised but given no other analgesia), and to antler removal with a saw four minutes later, found that EEG responses suggested application of the compression bands was a noxious stimulus, and that this was less effective than local anaesthetic ring block for analgesia during velvet antler removal. No significant differences were found in readings of EEG variables during antler removal between the deer treated with the compression band and those given no analgesic treatment. [Note: because the study was carried out under light general anaesthesia it was possible to include a control group in which no analgesia was given other than the general anaesthesia](J290.32.w1)
      • Median frequency (F50) in the ring blocked group was significantly lower than baseline during both application (p <0.0001) and anter removal periods (p < 0.02) whereas this value was significantly higher than baseline during compression band application ( p < 0.0001), during antler removal in banded stags (p < 0.01), and during antler removal in control stags. Values were significantly (p = 0.003) higher in compression banded than ring blocked stags during application and during removal were significantly different in control stags than in banded (p = 0.05) or ring blocked (p = 0.004) stags, and in compression banded than ring blocked stags (p = 0.006). Spectral edge frequency F95,  in control animals was significantly higher than baseline during antler removal ( p = 0.001) and in banded animals was significantly higher (p < 0.001) during application; in the ring blocked group during application F95 was significantly lower than baseline. During application, F95 was significantly higher in compression banded animals than in control (p = 0.03) or ring blocked (p <0.0001) groups. During antler removal F95 was significantly higher in control animals than in the compression (p = 0.005) or ring blocked (p < 0.0001) groups. Total EEG power Ptot was decreased in the removal period in the control group (p = 001 compared to the treatment application period) and in the compression banded group (p = 0.001, compared to the baseline and treatment periods); in the ring blocked group, Ptot was significantly smaller (p = 0.04) in the application period than in the baseline period. There were no significant differences (p = 0.19 to 0.96) in ECG variables between the control and compression banded groups for the antler removal period. (J290.32.w1)
    • A study comparing cardiovascular (heart rate, arterial pressures) and somatic responses (limb or neck movements) of lightly anaesthetised two-year-old red deer (Cervus elaphus - Red deer) stags to application of high pressure compression bands or lidocaine ring block of the pedicle, and to antler removal with a saw four minutes later, concluded that application of the compression band was a noxious stimulus and that it provided less effective analgesia than did a lidocaine ring block of the pedicle. [Note: because the study was carried out under light general anaesthesia it was possible to include a control group in which no analgesia was given other than the general anaesthesia](J290.32.w2)
      • Somatic responses occurred in one of nine stags on injection of lidocaine and in three of nine stags on application of compression bands. During antler removal, somatic responses were seen in eight of nine control animals (no analgesia other than the general anaesthesia), two of nine banded animals and no ring blocked animals; responses occurred in significantly more control than banded (p <0.02) or ring blocked (p<0.01) stags. Heart rate measurements (based on ECG records) found no significant differences between groups in the area under the curve (AUC), with all heart rates gradually falling, but a large, transient increase in heart rate followed by a persistent decrease was observed when the compression bands were applied (not seen in control or ring block groups) and there were heart rate peaks followed by sharp decreases in control and compression band groups on antler removal, while those given a ring block showed a small peak without an obvious drop afterwards. Arterial pressure measurements showed no significant differences from baseline or controls during application of the ring block, but significantly higher mean arterial pressure (MAP) (p <0.02), systolic arterial pressure (SAP) (p< 0.01) and diastolic arterial pressure (DAP) (p<0.01) during application of the compression bands. Following antler removal, DAP and MAP were significantly higher (p <0.01) than values during treatment application. The AUC for MAP, SAP and DAP in the compression banded group over the combined experimental period were significantly higher (p<0.01) than in the ring block group. AUC for DAP and MAP were also significantly higher (p = 0.02) in the compression banded group than in the control group over the combined anaesthetic period. The largest 'peak' of blood pressure change at the time of antler removal occurred in control stags, with the peak in compression banded stags being intermediate between this and the peak in ring blocked stags. (J290.32.w2)
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Reasons why adequate pain relief is not always provided

Reasons why adequate pain prevention may not be provided are described in detail in: Reasons for Failure to Provide Pain Relief. In brief, these include:
  • Attitudes towards pain in animals;
  • Tradition;
  • Failure to recognise pain;
  • Failure to recognise the importance of the adverse effects of pain;
  • Concern about removing possible protective effects of pain [this concern is generally excessive];
  • Concern that providing pain relief may itself stress the animal and have a negative impact on it;
  • Concern that treating pain may interfere with diagnosis;
  • Lack of information about analgesics;
  • Concern about toxicity and side-effects of analgesics;
  • Concerns about the safety and legislative controls associated with some analgesics such as opiates;
  • Economic and practical considerations.
Specific published reasons for failure to provide pain relief for deer velvet antler removal are indicated below.

Concerns about the safety and legislative controls associated with some analgesics such as opiates:

  • There may be concerns regarding effects on humans of residues of drugs which may be present in velvet antler products. (J14.42.w2) Residues in velvet antler have not been established.
    • Residues, if present, are likely to be minute. (J14.42.w1)
    • An unpublished study found no residues. (J14.42.w1)

Economic and practical considerations:

  • Use of analgesic drugs involves an extra cost in terms of the analgesic or analgesics used and disposable syringes/needles used in delivery of the analgesics. 
    • Some deer farmers consider that use of local anaesthesia for velvet antler removal is not effective in terms of time or money. (J14.42.w2)
  • Appropriate use of local anaesthetics requires knowledge of the amount of drug to be used and the placement of the injections, particularly if specific nerve blocks are to be used. (J14.37.w1)
  • Correct application of local anaesthesia is relatively time consuming and complex. (J14.42.w2)
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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Suzanne I Boardman BVMS MRCVS (V.w6)

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