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Reindeer and Caribou



     Reindeer have antlers, not horns, and they loose them yearly just like the other cervids such as elk and deer.  Caribou historically have been found in Greenland and on the North American continent, while reindeer are found on the European and Asian continents.  Both animals are of the deer family and essentially the same genus and species, Rangifer tarandus.  Caribou are a little bit larger, and usually found wild.  Reindeer have been domesticated for 2,000-5,000 years and are more docile.  There are no wild reindeer herds left.  For this handout we will use the name reindeer, since caribou are not usually domesticated.  We raise and treat domestic caribou, deer, elk, moose and reindeer essentially the same.  Artiodactylids is the order for this group of animals, with cervids being a family subgroup.  Ungulates are another group identification of these species with cloven hooves.  The general care and feeding of ruminant livestock and/or cervids applies to reindeer.  We have hundreds of applicable handouts regarding issues, problems, prevention and care for cervids and other livestock.   Handling facilities will vary with each farm.  A type of squeeze gates or solid chute/V-trough is needed to work reindeer.  With the adult reindeer ranging from 36-55” at the shoulders, an adjustable system may be needed.  The better hydraulic squeeze lifts are suggested if you have over 25 head of deer.  If you have a V-trough we prefer the 10” leg width, 25” shoulder widths, and 6-8′ tall working fences, as shown on the University of Alaska’s web site or  (  Solid fences or fabric is necessary, plus separating gates and a dark, enclosed area if one needs to tranquilize any deer.  Hoof trimming of reindeer will be needed periodically.  It is natural for their hooves to harden in the winter and become softer in the summer.    

     Yearly vaccinations for the clostridial diseases (4 or 7 way) are recommended, especially if one feeds grain.  Herds that are not fed grain do not need these vaccines.  Because tetanus can be periodically found in reindeer, we recommend alternating the clostridial vaccine one year, and the CD & T vaccine the next year.  In some areas leptospirosis and other vaccines may be considered.  We do not vaccinate for brucellosis in the lower 48 states.  In areas with Lyme disease, reindeer can be affected and thus we recommend they be vaccinated yearly with a killed vaccine.  Rabies is a consideration in valuable livestock. 

     Deworming should be performed yearly or more, preferably in conjunction with a stool testing before deworming.  The 10+ parasites of reindeer are similar to those found in other herbivore species.  Warble grubs, nasal bots, Echinococccosis tapeworms, and sarcocystis parasites can also seen in reindeer.  We utilize fecals for internal parasite testing, and external parasite exams are visual, except for mange mites.  A group fecal is recommended every 1-2 years, especially with the yearlings before you deworm them.

     Feeding reindeer is similar to the other cervids.  Enterotoxemia deaths are common if you feed grains, especially corn.  We not recommend feeding over a cup of grain mix to adult reindeer, although you may read that higher amounts can be suggested.  Younger calves, which do not have developed intestinal systems, can be fed higher amounts.  We recommend up to an 8 oz cup twice a day for calves under 9 months of age.  A beef or dairy calf starter mix can be used.  For large herds it is best to leave the calf on her mother till she weans him in the fall or winter.  Feeding an inactive adult reindeer may be done with grass hay and providing a brown mineral salt block.  Livestock eat 1.5 to less than 3% of their body weight a day.  If you want to feed a supplement we have a vitamin/mineral product mixed in an alfalfa pellet.  For a pregnant cow you can feed alfalfa hay and/or supplement her with the small size alfalfa pellets (1/4” size).  Over 1/2 of any reindeer’s diet should be hay.  A mixture of 16% protein, 8% fiber and 3% fat has been suggested as a reindeer supplement for the Alaskan winters.  In the wild these deer eat willows, grass, lichens and other shrubs.  The average reindeer cow weighs 175 to 200# while the males weigh around 225 to 250#.  A newborn calf weighs approximately 15#, while a yearling will be 150#.  In the wild, caribou bulls can reach 350# after engorging themselves in the summer.  They also have less forage available in the winter, and migrate up to 600 miles in the spring and fall.  Alfalfa, grass or a mixture are all adequate hays as long as the hay is clean and free of mold.  Reindeer are used to the very cold weather; they have a hollow fibrous fur that traps air.  To feed extra grain in cold weather is not recommended; instead feed more hay.

     The breeding season is in the fall, September and October.  In the spring the babies are born, such as late May and June. The gestation is around 7 months.  We do have PSPB blood testing and other methods available to diagnose pregnancy, although below discussion for the falling off period of her antlers can also suggest pregnancy.  Although reindeer can live to be 15 years of age, breeding a cow over 10 years old can create problems.  We recommend castrating the male calves in the fall if they are not to be used for breeding.  If one wants to train reindeer for sleigh rides, pick females.  Females are also gentler than males, although if one works with them daily most reindeer will become socialized to people.  The hooves of reindeer have adapted to walking on snow.  The honeycomb-like hair also creates an insulation blanket needed for the artic weather.

     A bull usually looses his antlers in November or December, after the breeding (rutting) season.  Yearling bulls under 3 years of age may keep their antlers till March or April.  The female keeps her antlers till the spring.  An open cow may drop her antlers in April or May, while a pregnant cow usually keeps her antlers till after calving.  Reindeer are the only cervids in which the females have antlers. 

     Brucellosis and tuberculosis are common tests performed by the veterinarian.  Brucella can be found in the northern wild herds.  Johnes, MCF, and other ruminant diseases need to be considered when there are herd problems. Warts, ringworm and other common livestock diseases can also be found in reindeer. Although the management of the wild cervids is similar, the anesthetic protocols we use are a little different.  Reindeer are anesthetized similarly to deer, yet can be tranquilized similarly to elk.  A possible myositis is always a concern with any cervid under stress.

     In the eastern part of the U.S. we see the white-tailed deer meningeal worm (Paralephostrongylus) can affect caribou and reindeer.  This parasite uses snails as an intermediate host and typically encysts and affects the lungs of deer.  We use a bauerman fecal test to help identify the problem in a live animal or herd.  Diagnosis is usually by a necropsy (animal autopsy).  This parasite can also affect elk (Moose sickness) red deer, mule, black-tailed and sometimes fallow deer.  Elaphostrongylus is another, similar kind of meningeal worm found in Europe, New Zealand and other areas.  Red deer are usually affected. Elaphostrongylus does not usually cause as much brain and spinal damage as Paralephostrongylus in caribou and reindeer.  Both worms are diagnosed the same and prevented by periodic systemic dewormings.  Once in the spinal cord there is no treatment.  Elaphostrongylus is not common in the United States.  Iron toxicity (hemosiderosis) is rarely seen in domestic reindeer.  It can occur in the northern areas and Norway when the animals eat moss and other marginal forage plants in the winter. 

     If a reindeer dies, we recommend a necropsy at the nearby state diagnostic laboratory.  It is important to remember that if a healthy animal should need to be euthanized, such as for a broken leg, we recommend that you allow us to collect plasma and freeze this for your herd.  This plasma can be saved for up to 5 years.  If a newborn ruminant has not nursed within 12 hours, 1/2 pint of oral plasma can be given as a type of colostrum.  The first milk, or colostrum, from reindeer is preferred over plasma, but not readily available.  Should you be able to milk the first colostrum of a reindeer please bring in the sample for testing before freezing.  The other ruminant colostrums are less effective, but indicated as a last resort for newborns.  The milk after 1 day is probably not colostrum and may not be worth freezing.  Our newborn handout(s) and handout for wild orphan ruminants discusses feeding lamb replacer or undiluted evaporated milk to deer and reindeer.  Anytime livestock are sold a bill of sale is required; a call to the livestock brand office is recommended for cervids.  All premises where livestock are kept need to be registered with the USDA:   


The Staff at the Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic