Can Deer Die From Stress: And What Causes Stress in Deer?

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Just like humans, animals do experience physiological reactions to their environment or health. That includes fear, pain, anguish, sadness, and depression. But can deer die from stress?

Due to predation or hunting pressures, deer can suffer capture myopathy or white muscle disease. This is a condition that results in chronic metabolic upset and eventual death. When stress reaches dangerous levels, the deer’s body produces cortisone, adrenalin, lactic acid, which leads to organ damage.

Stress is a response to a stressor stimulus that an animal perceives as harmful or a threat. Blood and heart rate pressure buildup and immune system suppression are fatal effects, and deer die from cardiac arrest or heart arrhythmia. Read on to learn how these animals react to stress and what you, as a hunter, can minimize their agony to harvest healthier venison.

What Is Stress in Deer, and How Does It Cause Death?

Predation, habitat change, adverse weather, and anthropogenic occurrences can cause stress responses in deer that result in death. Scientists describe such reactions as cascades of endocrine secretions in which the animal’s adrenal glands play a vital role. These mechanisms help varmint escape, survive and recover from adverse conditions by triggering the emergency response.

Exertion or capture myopathy is a stress reaction that happens mainly in hoofed mammals such as deer. It’s triggered when the animal is being chased or has been captured by predators or humans. Unfortunately, this condition causes a chemical reaction within the deer’s muscles, leading to significant organ shutdown and death.

A chase by natural predators or on and off hunter presence doesn’t always trigger myopathy in the wild. It’s, however, common in rescue operations where the ungulate, especially fawns, are exposed to prolonged human handling and proximity that causes demise.

Symptoms of exertional myopathy include body temperature and heart rate increase, muscular stiffness, dark-red colored urine, and paralysis. Acute myopathy causes the deer to die within hours, while chronic myopathy stretches its suffering for days or weeks before total organ failure.

As such, stress may lead to death. Venison from such a carcass will show the cause of death by cardiac arrest and muscular failure from hemorrhages or generalized congestion in kidneys, heart, and liver.

What Is Deer Herd Stress, and Is It Lethal?

In deer society, there consists of groupings of closely related females and outlying herds of vagrant bucks. The doe clans are headed by an alpha female who runs things with a tight fist, meeting out punishment to any transgressor. That’s how they maintain order and herd tranquility, and this system’s breakdown can induce stress.

In some instances, a doe can get excluded or shunned from the herd due to antisocial behavior. She may also be regarded as a threat to the dominance of the alpha female. Frail, old, and ill animals are abandoned when resources are scarce, or the herd is fleeing a predator. Such a deer will suffer stress from the risk of starvation or predation and more so from lacking social interaction.

Besides unnatural social structures, inadequate nutrition or harsh climatic conditions that result from poorly habituated herds can cause deer stress. In such a herd, you’ll find does having difficulties conceiving, plus high fetal and fawn mortalities. Coupled with winter or the first few weeks of spring death of fawns, you’ll get poor recruitment and lower harvest-worthy buck availability.

Stress in bucks also affects the proper development of antlers. Since these indicate a deer’s standing in the pecking order, males that don’t enlarge their rack accordingly have difficulty reproducing. A prolonged rut or a skewed sex ratio results in chronic buck stress from traveling far and longer or breeding with more than two does.

While deer herd stresses such as nutritional or habitat stress aren’t instantly lethal, unlike capture myopathy, stress is causative of lower immunity which results in disease, disorders, and parasites. These are some attributes or symptoms to look out for and find solutions to harvest stress-free deer herds.

How Can You Identify Stress in Deer?

As a hunter, you may want to find out if deer are dying from stress, which inadvertently reduces your chances of productive harvests. Symptoms of capture myopathy are evident since you’ll see lameness, stiff swollen muscles, and discolored urine from myoglobin excretions that damage the kidneys.

An animal or its carcass covered in flightless keds or ticks is a promising sign of stress. Little or no mesenteric or organ fat is another great indication of stress, particularly in the late season.

Changing deer’s coat or molting from winter to summer and vice versa occurs slower in stressed individuals. When does still have red coats in October, it means there’s stress in the herd. Fawns also shouldn’t have spots abnormally late, and if there are various ages sporting baby fur simultaneously, that’s a stress indicator.

If bucks antlers seem smaller than they should or feature an abnormal growth pattern, that herd has nutritional stress. That’s also true for antlers with large bases but taper to half the diameter as they rise, or those lacking pearls or tiny beads between the brow tines and burrs.

What Can You Do To Minimize Deer Mortality from Stress

Fear and anxiety will result in stress, leading to capture or exertion myopathy, killing deer within 24 hours. The animal can appear to recover, especially for wild ungulates that find themselves in captivity, but soon dies from cardiac arrest and organ damage after the next stressful event.

Minimizing the hunt and stalk time instead of hunting with dogs is one contributor to less capture myopathy. When handling deer, using antipsychotic drugs or tranquilizers helps reverse the animal’s reaction to human proximity. Avoid handling varmint in the heat of the day as it’ll significantly increase stress risk.

Where deer exhibit nutritional stresses, vitamin E and selenium supplements additions to their diet will counter this. Practicing proper management and production techniques will assist in harvestable deer increase and add profitability to your hunting operation. If you come across an abandoned or destitute fawn, avoid handling it until qualified help can arrive.

For animals that you’ve got to rescue, otherwise, they perish. Keep them in a quiet, dark place to reduce the possibility of capture myopathy. Putting a cloth over the animal’s eyes will help calm it down, and you should keep pets as far away as possible. During cold weather, a blanket on its body ensures the deer don’t become chilled, while a drafty cool place in summer helps keep its body heat down.


The immediate reaction to a stressful event in deer and other wild animals is the fight or flight syndrome. The ungulates body produces adrenaline to respond to stressors, and persistent stress will drive secretions to dangerous levels. Increased cortisol excretion also results in epinephrine as part of the autonomic nervous system or ANS.

These hormones and other chemicals like lactic acid flood every organ and muscle group. As the fleeing or captured deer’s stress levels increase, cortisol or the corticosteroid hormone, an immune system suppressor, allows disease and parasites to invade the animal. Stress is also responsible for loss of pregnancy in does.

Stress is a cumulative process, and each stressor may not be significant enough to contribute to the deer’s demise. When the animal is affected simultaneously or sequentially, however, it’s pushed towards illness and death.

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