About Reindeer

When people think of reindeer, they often visualize Rudolf and his friends pulling Santa’s sleigh. As cute as this image may be, there is so much more to these fascinating creatures.
Reindeer ecology, physiology, and anatomy are very unique. They have been domesticated for thousands of years, yet we know very little about them from a veterinary standpoint. Attempts at artificial insemination, embryo transfer and other reproductive technologies have been met with considerable challenges and mixed results.
Although many sources erroneously claim that caribou and reindeer are the same – Caribou and Reindeer are different subspecies. Reindeer are classified as Rangifer tarandus tarandus and the alaskan caribou are classified as Rangifer tarandus granti. Even National Geographic and many prominent zoos in the United States are wrongly classifying these animals. A recent genetic mapping published in Nature Climate Change shows the migration pattern of these mammals in North America over the last 21,000 years, and claims that they are actually different animals — but closely related cousins.
Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM
Reindeer Looking Over Sholder
Reindeer Arrival

Reindeer first arrived in Alaska in 1892 by boat. Unlike their wild caribou cousins, they did not cross the land bridge. They were shipped from Siberia. Their peak populations reached 640,000 animals during the 1930’s. Only 20,000 live in Alaska today. Pictured is an Alaska reindeer herd circa 1920.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Both male and female reindeer grow antlers each year that are deciduous (fall off every year), solid antlers emanating from pedicles (permanent bases) on the frontal bones of the skull. As they are growing, the antlers are soft, rubbery, and the living mass of blood and marrow is covered with a furry skin. The antlers grow rapidly and during this period the reindeer are said to be “in velvet”. When the antlers are finished growing usually some time in August, they harden, and the “velvet” is vigorously rubbed off.

The reindeer rut (breeding season) has a very intense and rapid onset. The massive 400+ inch antlers have grown over the past several months at an astounding rate of 1-2” of growth per day. They are among the fastest growing tissues in the animal kingdom. The blood supply is tremendous and heat can be felt when touching the massive antlers. This blood supply gradually decreases as the antlers reach their full size. The antlers harden once the growth is complete typically by the first week of September.

Abruptly, the males aggressively rub their massive racks on anything in their way. All of the velvet is rubbed off within a 12 hour period. Although fresh blood is noted on the antlers as the velvet comes off, the condition is NOT PAINFUL. There is no sensation in the antlers at this point. The normally docile bulls become very dangerous and deadly and cannot be trusted until their antlers fall off just before Christmas. The bulls then begin to rut, exhibiting neck swelling, enlarged tear ducts, and aggression (remember, they are animals, keep safety in mind). Rutting males become protective of the females in the herd, and the breeding season of several months begins. 

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Antler Rub

Reindeer are believed by many to be the first domesticated animals with a written reference to herding in a 9th century letter from Norway’s King Ottar to Alfred the Great which mentioned his fine herd of over 600 reindeer.

Farm raised reindeer are curious, friendly, likeable animals. They are easy to fence, feed and train to pull. Exhibition at Christmas and brood stock sales make them profitable, too! Reindeer do not require large areas or facilities. They can thrive on commercial feeds and are now raised successfully in most parts of the USA, including, as far south as Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Procedures have been tried and proven successful in raising reindeer in these diverse areas. Feed formulas are available, and training tips can be provided by various members who exhibit reindeer. A list of breeders and owners of reindeer that are for sale is continually updated, as well as a reference list of husbandry articles, circulars and university publications.

Reindeer World War Ii
Reindeer were highly valued during World War II according to a research article published by the Arctic Institute of North America. They were primarily used to help transport war supplies through a crucial 800 mile long route, after supplies arrived in the Russian port city of Murmansk from North America.
It was an arduous and often deadly journey through blizzards, snow drifts and temperatures that routinely dipped below minus 30 degrees, no to mention nearly constant German attack.
Prior to World War II, reindeer were also used by Finnish troops during the Winter War (1939-1940).
Pictured is a monument to the WWII reindeer squadrons’ members in Naryan-Mar, the capital city of Russia’s Nenets Autonomous Area.
Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM
Antler Drop

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are the only deer species in which both the males and females grow antlers. Even calves grow antlers during their first year! Antlers, by definition, are shed and re-grown every year. Bulls lose their antlers during the winter, typically around Christmas time. Non-pregnant females will also lose their antlers during the winter. With caribou, pregnant females will not typically drop their antlers until they give birth in the spring. Because animals with antlers are dominant over those without, this adaptation allows a pregnant female to protect her food resources during scarce winter conditions, ensuring adequate nutrition for the continued development of her fetus. 

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Antler

Reindeer antler sheds are unique. Other cervids, such as deer and elk, have a convex base that leaves a temporary indentation in the skull. Reindeer have a concave antler base. Antler pedicles are visible immediately after shedding.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer are much more sedentary than caribou. While they do exhibit seasonal grazing patterns, their movements remain primarily within a well established home range. Reindeer tend to have a more robust body shape, with shorter legs and a flatter face. When herded, reindeer gather together into a cohesive unit instead of spreading out. It is interesting to note that just one or two caribou in a reindeer herd will cause the entire herd to behave more erratically and scatter.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Group

The reindeer rut (breeding season) has a very intense and rapid onset. The massive 400+ inch antlers have grown over the past several months at an astounding rate of 1-2” of growth per day. They are among the fastest growing tissues in the animal kingdom. The blood supply is tremendous and heat can be felt when touching the massive antlers. This blood supply gradually decreases as the antlers reach their full size. The antlers harden once the growth is complete typically by the first week of September. Abruptly, the males aggressively rub their massive racks on anything in their way. All of the velvet is rubbed off within a 12 hour period. Although fresh blood is noted on the antlers as the velvet comes off, the condition is NOT PAINFUL. There is no sensation in the antlers at this point. The normally docile bulls become very dangerous and deadly and cannot be trusted until their antlers fall off just before Christmas.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Bull Reindeer

In reindeer, there is a negative correlation between breeding date and gestation length. This means that the later in the season a female is bred, the shorter her gestation length. This phenomenon creates synchrony of parturition among the herd and thus fewer calves are lost to predation. A similar physiological adaptation exists in alpacas and wildebeest. Pictured are female reindeer from Timberview reindeer farm near Springfield, OR.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Females
Reindeer Lichen
Pluralities of deer species are classified as browsers, meaning that they are highly selective of food and will travel tremendous distances in search of a specific diet. Only about a quarter of all deer species are true grazers. Reindeer are unique in that they do not fall into either category, but are classified as intermediate feeders, meaning naturally they switch between browsing and grazing, which usually depends upon the seasonal availability of their preferred food. For example, during summer, their diet consists of green vegetation with high nutritive value. Alternatively, in the winter, their diet is dominated by lichens. Lichens are rich in digestible carbohydrates but low in protein and essential minerals.  This photo shows feeding lichen to a reindeer during a snow storm in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

The inside of a reindeer’s mouth is very unique. They have no upper front teeth or incisors. Instead, they have a modified hard palate and incisors in the front of the lower jaw which are used to nip and tear at plants while feeding. In the rear of the mouth (on both top and bottom) are large molars. Molars are important in grinding and crushing food to make it more digestible. The soft tissue projections inside the lips are called papillae. They help move food to the back of the mouth where it can be properly ground and chewed. 

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Mouth

A swimming reindeer seems to ‘ride high’ on the water. This results from the great buoyancy imparted by the air trapped within the hollow guard hairs. Reindeer are known to be great swimmers and will cross wide rivers and lakes during their annual migrations

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Swimming
Reindeer Coat

A reindeer’s (Rangifer tarandus) hair coat is thick! In fact, they have up to 3,000-5,000 hairs per square inch of their body. Here is a close up of a massive winter coat. 

A reindeer’s thick fur is a good insulator, but that isn’t the only way they stay warm during the winter. Reindeer also survive by releasing as little heat as possible to the environment through their nose — and by conserving as much water vapor as possible.
The powerful reindeer snout is made up of cartilage and bone, fleshy structure, mucous membranes and lots of blood vessels. The expansive inner surface provides plenty of space for exchanging heat and water vapor between the air and the nasal wall.
The colder it is, the more efficient the reindeer nose becomes. This energy dissipation in the form of friction is what scientists call entropy production. The brilliant reindeer nose ensures that entropy production is almost always uniform. This means that the animal as a whole loses the least possible amount of energy to the environment when it breathes. The reindeer nose roughly follows the mathematical “constant entropy production” equation.
As humans, we exhale steam in cold temperatures. In contrast, little to no steam is noted when a reindeer breathes in and exhales in extreme cold.


Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

 Hairs on the face of a reindeer extend down to and almost completely cover the lips. This protects the muzzle from frostbite during winter when reindeer obtain their daily food as frozen vegetation from beneath the snow. The lips of a reindeer are very fleshy and mobilewhich facilitates the harvesting of northern food plants such as lichens, grasses, and willow shrubs. 

The powerful reindeer snout is made up of cartilage and bone, fleshy structure, mucous membranes and lots of blood vessels. The expansive inner surface provides plenty of space for exchanging heat and water vapor between the air and the nasal wall.
The colder it is, the more efficient the reindeer nose becomes. This energy dissipation in the form of friction is what scientists call entropy production. The brilliant reindeer nose ensures that entropy production is almost always uniform. This means that the animal as a whole loses the least possible amount of energy to the environment when it breathes. The reindeer nose roughly follows the mathematical “constant entropy production” equation.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Lips
Reindeer Legs

Reindeer have very little hair on their legs compared to the rest of their body. Reindeer have the ability to cool down their limbs; in other words, when the weather is very cold (about – 30 F) the deer doesn’t spend much heat and energy keeping its lower legs warm. Instead, the temperature in the lower legs is allowed to go down to about 33 F, just above freezing, while the chest and abdomen are still kept at the normal body temperature of 101.5 F. Leg temperature is lowered by the tightening, or constriction, of the blood vessels feeding the legs. In this way, very little warm blood can flow down into the legs. Most of the reindeer’s muscles are up high in the body where they will stay warm and functional. The lower legs and hooves are primarily tendons and ligaments. These can continue to function at low temperatures, and cool leg temperatures have little effect on the reindeer’s ability to run.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

This is a thermal image of Prancer, a reindeer at Timberview Reindeer farm near Eugene, Oregon. Notice the blood flow and heat generated in the growing antler. The nose is also very vascular and plays an important role in regulating body temperature during the winter months. 

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Ir
Reindeer and Caribou will often stand in water during warmer temperature as an aid in cooling off. As they do not sweat, this is an effective method to help reduce their overall body temperature.
When drinking from a water source, they are often observed pawing the ground under the water they are drinking. Domesticated reindeer also will paw at the bottom of water troughs as they drink. We think the reason behind this behavior is an instinctual effort to stir up needed minerals in the sediment to fulfill their nutritional requirement. These subspecies seem to be able to know when a mineral is required and how to find and consume it when needed.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Water
Reindeer Hooves

Broad hooves and dewclaws act as snowshoes and thereby enable the reindeer to travel more easily across deep snow. Other members of the deer family generally have small pointed hooves and, because they are not able to travel freely, may become restricted to small grazing areas called ‘yards’ when snowfalls are heavy. Researchers have found that reindeer can dig feeding craters when snow is as deep as 3 feet. Their shovel-like hooves also enable the reindeer to chip through hard and crusted snow.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

 The calves are born in Spring weighing around 12 pounds. By December, they weigh well over 150 pounds and their size approximates that of their mothers.
How do reindeer grow so fast? The answer is in the milk.
Reindeer milk is very high in fat compared to milk from other domestic species. A Jersey cow, known for its high butterfat content, only has about 4% milk fat. Reindeer milk registers at a whopping 24% milk fat! They rank first in fat content among milk consumed by humans. Yes, people do consume reindeer milk in certain parts of the world.
As you can imagine, it takes two people to milk a reindeer, one to wrestle with the antlers and the other to do the milking. The whole operation is extremely labor intensive, with not much milk produced.
Other milks that are high in overall fat are not consumed by humans. These include gray seal milk, with 53.2 percent fat, whale milk, with 34.8 percent fat, and polar bear milk with 31 percent fat. Other high-fat animal milks include cat, rabbit, rat, deer, dolphin and elephant, all of which have between 10 and 20 percent fat content.
Clearly, fat content varies depending on the needs of the offspring of each individual species. 

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer Milk

Gestation is about 224 days. The calves are usually single births with that flurry of activity beginning in April. Twin births are extremely rare in reindeer. The calves are up nursing and walking very quickly, normally in less than an hour. They weigh between 8 to 14 pounds at birth, grow rapidly and some can easily weigh 90 pounds when they are 4 months old. At that time, they have already grown their first set of “Rudolph” antlers.

We recommend talking with ROBA members about these fine animals before you make any purchase.

Reindeer Light
Reindeer adapt to the Arctic’s endless summer light and winter dark by silencing their circadian clock. Recently a team or Norwegian Scientists looked at semi-domesticated reindeer native to Tromsø, Norway. Tromsø, which is just north of the Arctic circle, gets about two months of continuous daylight in summer, two months of darkness in winter, and only a few weeks of regular length days around the equinoxes. The researchers bought the reindeer from the indigenous Scandinavian people, called the Sámi, who herd reindeer for a living.
The team took connective tissue cells from the reindeer and inserted a gene sequence into the reindeer DNA that triggers circadian clock genes. The sequence also included a reporter gene, which lit up every time the clock genes turned on.
Turning off the clock may help the reindeer keep to their non-stop schedule of grazing on grass, leaves and lichen for a few hours, napping for few hours and then grazing some more, even in winter when the sun never rises

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM

Reindeer husbandry has been and still is an important aspect of Sami culture. During the years of forced assimilation, the areas in which reindeer herding was an important livelihood were among the few where the Sami culture and language survived.
Today in Norway and Sweden, reindeer husbandry is legally protected as an exclusive Sami livelihood, such that only persons of Sami descent with a linkage to a reindeer herding family can own, and hence make a living off, reindeer. Presently, about 2,800 people are engaged in reindeer herding in Norway. In Finland, reindeer husbandry is not exclusive and is practiced to a limited degree also by ethnic Finns. Legally, it is restricted to EU/EEA nationals resident in the area. In the north (Lapland), it plays a major role in the local economy, while its economic impact is lesser in the southern parts of the area.

Reprinted with permission of Dr. N. Isaac Bott, DVM 

Reindeer Sami

You should be aware of individual state laws and regulations concerning ownership and responsibilities, importation, fencing requirements, herd certification, etc. Contact ROBA for information on members within your area. They can be very helpful in getting you started.

The purchase of young, farm raised animals, started on feeds that are available in your location is a good option for the new owner. Young animals are easy to handle and train. You can see the herd they came from, investigate the health status of that herd and make an informed decision based upon personal observation. Ask if the reindeer herd is a certified TB-free herd or is in the certification process and request to see herd health papers.

 

All reputable breeders are proud of their herd’s health status and will show a prospective buyer that information. Ask for the names and addresses of persons who have previously purchased reindeer from the seller and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you are interested in reindeer, ROBA is the group of dedicated people in the reindeer breeding program for you. No matter what your reason for having them may be, reindeer raising can be fun and profitable too. Just ask anyone who owns them!

For more information, please follow this link to the University of Alaska Reindeer Research Program

Get In Touch

Reindeer Owners and Breeders Association
PO Box. 134 Luxemburg, WI 54217

Phone: 920-639-3420 | Email: info@reindeerowners.com