Information and advice from the RVC Farm Animal Clinical Centre on Reindeer Care.
Vets in the UK are being consulted about reindeer increasingly often. The health problems of those seen are frequently linked to how they are kept and to environmental conditions. The UK environment is very different from where they have evolved to thrive and, as a result, they are at greater risk of developing certain conditions.
Cases seen by Royal Veterinary College (RVC) specialists and other vets around the UK suggest there is an increasing need for owners to be educated about maintaining the health of reindeer living here. Poor body condition, weight loss, sudden death and adult de-horning are among the most common reasons for veterinary intervention.
UK reindeer population
The exact number of reindeer in the UK is unknown because there is no requirement for them to be recorded on an official database. However, from the EU’s Trade Control and Expert System (TRACES), it is known that between 2005 and 2013 there were 90 consignments of reindeer imported into the UK, totalling 1,168 deer. Most of those came from Sweden and Finland, with smaller numbers coming from Denmark, Germany, Netherlands and Norway. They are often brought over for Christmas fairs or held in small collections at zoos or farms. There are also an increasing number being successfully bred in the UK.
Habitat, health and welfare
Reindeer have evolved to live in subarctic conditions, and therefore deer brought into countries with markedly different environmental conditions need careful management to avoid health problems. As herding animals, reindeer should be kept in groups rather than alone.
Lush pastures are inappropriate for reindeer and they instead need good quality hay and other feed, such as lichen. Concentrates formulated for reindeer, rather than those produced for small ruminants or cattle, are recommended. Sudden changes to diet can lead to gastrointestinal disturbances, weight loss and neurological disease.
Vets with experience with reindeer will be happy to offer information to owners, and to prospective owners before they purchase reindeer. They will discuss issues like diet, husbandry, parasite control and infectious disease control. For example, it is important that reindeer are not kept anywhere with contact with sheep, as sheep carry a disease (Malignant catarrhal fever) which can kill reindeer.
Both male and female reindeer have evolved to grow and shed new antlers every year. As this is under control of testosterone, as well as other hormones, if males are castrated they continue to grow antlers but usually do not shed them normally. Therefore they become large and fail to shed their velvet. These can then bleed, become infected and grow lesions.
On some holdings across England and Wales, castrated reindeer have been reported with unusual large fibropapillomatous lesions of the antler velvet. Initial investigations sought to establish a viral cause for the lesions, but none was found. As female reindeer do not develop such lesions and non-castrated males rarely do, the cause is likely to be related to the complex interplay between antler development and sex hormones.
Hormone intervention can be used to help cast their antlers, but there are difficulties obtaining these. In cases with severe papillomatous-like lesions, secondary bacterial infection and the risk of fly strike often mean that surgical intervention to remove the antlers is required.
De-horning reindeer is not as straightforward procedure as it is in other species. Removing antlers requires a general anaesthetic or heavy sedative, and control of haemostasis (the process of stopping bleeding) is a challenge due to large blood vessels in the velvet, as well as pain relief requirements.
The RVC is undertaking research to investigate the best conditions in which to manage reindeer, in the environment of the southern UK. This will ultimately help vets to support reindeer and advise their owners.