Rough Looking Deer, Are They Sick?

Jul 20, 2020

Have you seen a deer lately that isn’t pretty? It is probably just dealing with life, as the Masked Biologist shares in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

Right now, my colleagues and I are getting a lot of calls from concerned people who are seeing what they refer to as “rough looking” young does. The concern, naturally, is that these deer are sick or injured. In fact, they are simply new mothers during a miserable time of year to be a deer. I thought I would try to put a little perspective on the life of does right now and see if I can help put minds at ease.

First, it has been hot. Very hot. Deer change their coats, or pelage, twice a year. They have a warmer winter coat and a cooler summer coat—that is, every spring they shed their heavy winter hair, and every fall it regrows to provide extra thermal protection. If you have a domestic dog or cat, you may be familiar with this concept. Right now, my dog is shedding like crazy. We brush him, bathe him, and take him swimming. Still, every time you run your hand down his back you get a fistful of hair. Deer are in a similar situation- their bodies are trying to release unneeded winter coats. This means you can expect to see clumps of hair falling off deer and very ragged-looking coats.

Deer are also tired of biting and blood-sucking insects like black flies, deer flies, horse flies, mosquitoes and ticks. Nasal bot flies lay eggs around their mouth and nose, and when the deer licks them, larvae hatch and crawl into their sinus passages where they grow and develop. Deer may come out to feed during the day when these bugs are less active, and they may stand in water up to their bellies to try to get away from some bugs and soothe their legs in the cool water.

Finally, does are nursing fawns. Their birth weight was maybe six or eight pounds, but they double in size in the first two weeks, all from drinking mother’s milk. Maybe not a lot at first, a few ounces a couple times a day, but the more they grow, the more they need to drink. After a couple of weeks, they may start to eat some green vegetation, but they will still nurse up to 8 times a day, in all consuming ten to twenty percent of their body weight in milk daily. Right now, there would be great variation in fawn weight, but I would guess they’d be 25-35 pounds. That means they could be drinking a half gallon of milk per fawn per day. So the doe needs to recover body weight lost from winter and fawning, maintain it’s current metabolic needs, and try to put on fat before winter, but it also needs to convert food to fat, colostrum and milk. Basically, the stress put on a doe right now is probably the greatest it will experience any other time of year depending on conditions. That means you will see some very skinny deer doing some serious feeding, which might include garden plants that are fortified with fertilizer. You may also see strange behavior, like eating bird eggs or shells, chewing on bones, or licking rocks or soil. The doe may not wean her offspring until it is around 3-4 months old, and with the majority of the fawns dropping around Memorial Day, your average fawn is probably about eight weeks old right now, another six or eight weeks from being weaned.

So, if you see a shabby looking doe standing in your yard eating your hastas, or maybe it is grazing on your grass and refuses to run when the dog barks or a door opens, don’t worry. She is probably just a new mother trying to eat for two while dealing with heat, insects, and metabolic demands. If she is laying under a tree seemingly unafraid, she might just be chewing her cud and resting before she goes back to nurse her fawn or fawns. If you are ever in doubt, I suggest calling a local wildlife rehabilitator about what you see and asking if there is any cause for concern.