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Do Deer Feel Pain?

Back To "Ask The Biologist?"QUESTION: This might sound stupid, but do deer feel pain the same way we do? I shot at a deer with my recurve and missed. It jumped and ran off about 15 yards and came back a few minutes later. I shot again and it acted the exact same way but walked off out of sight. I found the arrow covered in blood, a complete pass-through.

I followed the blood trail and found the deer about 30 yards away. It just seemed that it was never in any pain at all.

Another time, I shot low with my rifle and hit a deer in the leg. It jumped and ran with its leg dangling, then stopped to eat about 50 yards away. It’s really weird that they seem like it doesn’t bother them that much. — Jonah B.

ANSWER: Not a stupid question at all. In fact, it’s a great question, although not an easy one to answer.

We don’t know exactly what deer feel and probably never will. But in attempting to, it’s important to understand that pain has several components: physical, psychological and emotional.

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Photo courtesy of Hadley Creek Outfitters

Physically, we know that a deer’s central and peripheral nervous systems are not nearly as complex or well developed as those of humans. They do not have the same “hard wiring,” the physical capacity to transmit pain signals from the sight of a wound, along the peripheral nervous system, up the spinal chord to the brain. They undoubtedly feel some sensation, just not to the same intensity we might.

Second, and perhaps more important, they do not have the mental capacity to comprehend what that sensation is. They simply react to a stimulus, the same way you might react to a poke in the ribs. And how they react often depends on circumstances.

If calmly feeding, an arrowed deer might simply jump at the initial hit — much the same as if slapped by a branch or hit by a falling acorn — then calm down and possibly even return to feeding or whatever they were doing before the shot.

If tense before the shot, the deer’s reaction will likely be more intense. On numerous occasions, I’ve witnessed arrowed deer jump, run a short distance then resume normal behavior. And in tracking dozens of wounded deer, often in the snow, I’ve observed what appears to be very similar behavior. Within a few hundred yards they resume behavior typical of unwounded deer.

Deer often react to a gunshot much more dramatically, more because of the noise and shock than any actual pain. That’s why with a chest wound, it’s often difficult to distinguish a hit from a miss.

Our perception is that deer have a tremendous tolerance for pain. It would be more accurate to say they simply don’t feel as much, and don’t understand the meaning of what they do feel.

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