April 07, 2022
By Clint McCoy, DVM
Being a veterinarian is an everyday adventure. When I’m not in the whitetail woods chasing big bucks, I stay busy troubleshooting a variety of animal issues; and every day on the clinic floor is full of unique challenges.
A growing trend in veterinary medicine is something we in the industry jokingly refer to as “Doctor Google.” Nearly every client has a smart phone in their pocket, and a great many of them seem to have their animal diagnosed before I see the patient. To be honest, some are correct in their deductions. Some are close, and some aren’t even in the right zip code. Regardless, Doctor Google is here to stay, and we just take it in stride.
Doctor Google surfaces in the whitetail realm, too. I see it with regularity in social media posts and YouTube videos. It seems like every trail camera photo of a buck with any perceived illness or irregularity gets shared like wildfire. These deer are often billed incorrectly as having Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) or Epizootic Hemorraghic Disease (EHD).
Deer with a swelling under the skin automatically get labeled as having “meat unfit for human consumption.” Hype and hysteria surrounds shared trail camera images like these, and most of the time, poor information prevails.
In contrast, if one objectively views these unique images, they can allow for some thought-provoking discussions. Let us examine a few, keeping in mind that with simple two-dimensional images we can rarely make a definitive diagnosis. However, we can usually make some sound deductions.
Hormones control a tremendous number of bodily processes, and game cameras can sometimes show us evidence of the disruption in an animal’s body.
I once got a photo of a spotted fawn on April 20, and after finding the date stamp to be set correctly, I can come to only one logical conclusion: this fawn must have been conceived unusually late in winter, and it was likely born in late September or early October.
This little fawn must have been born when daylength had already shortened, so her pineal gland never triggered the hormone shift needed to fade her spots and grow her first true winter coat.
Testosterone imbalance is also seen on camera. If a buck you have on camera carries his antler velvet into the fall or winter, you can suspect low testosterone levels to be the culprit. However, that’s almost all one can decipher.
Some of these bucks may have one or two retained testicles in the abdomen, called cryptorchidism, resulting in erratic hormone balance. Testicular trauma can also create this imbalance. If you are lucky enough to photograph a buck with fall or winter velvet, place your bet on scrotal injury.
On the other hand, if testosterone is produced too high, a buck may grow an abnormally large or unusually configured rack. Testosterone over production can also occur in does, and I was fortunate to follow an antlered doe for several years with trail cameras. She would retain her little fuzzy spike antlers year-round, and she never really changed her rack configuration all that much.
Not all trail camera photos of hormone influence are abnormal. If around Halloween you get images of a buck that looks like he’s been training to body slam Andre the Giant, that’s pretty normal! Mature bucks are most jacked just before the chase begins wearing them down in November.
Most seasoned whitetail hunters are familiar with the two most uncommon presentations of genetic hair color dilutions in deer: albinism and leucism. Albino deer, those that are all white with red eyes, are extremely rare; whereas leucitic deer are a bit more common and result in a brown and white piebald hair coat.
Melanism is also a reported genetic coat trait resulting in deer that are all black in color, which are rarer than their all-white counterparts.Not long ago, I got a photo of what I thought might be a piebald doe. As it turned out, I think she had a much more common condition: parasitism.
I think her bilaterally symmetric “white color” was from hair loss and over grooming because of the intense itch associated with mange mites. She only had her alopecia pattern where she could lick the itch away with her tongue.
Speaking of parasites, it’s not unusual to get pictures of deer with their face and neck covered by blood thirsty ticks. A heavy tick burden can cause blood loss to the point of anemia, immune suppression and poor body condition. But, believe it or not, deer don’t get or carry the organism responsible for Lyme disease. They don’t infect ticks with the bacteria either.
So, don’t freak out if you shot a nice buck during the rut that had a ton of ticks on him in your summer trail cam captures. He’s safe to harvest, process and eat.
Trauma & Injury
Photos of trauma are a fairly common finding for me, and they really can be broken down into two subsets: man-made trauma, and naturally occurring trauma.
Man-made trauma can be seen in trail camera photos clearly, but they can be a bit graphic. Thankfully, these images are very few and far between. I also get several hundred photos of deer with injuries that have been made, not by man, but by themselves.
Bucks like to do two things during the rut, and fighting is one of them. It is common for me to get images of bucks with wounds on their face or forehead from battling other bucks. Some will have notches in their ears, several busted antler tines or big hairless scars down their neck.
Others will have eye injuries from antler gouges. If you get a photo of a buck with one of those spooky white “Doctor Evil” eyes, it is likely a large, opaque corneal scar from injury. If the globe of the eye has ruptured, the eye may look deflated, and the muscles around the orbit may look sunken.
If your trail camera uncovers a buck like this, use the evidence as clues into the buck’s personality. If he’s got some or all the above mentioned battle scars, go pick a fight with him.
I’ve packed a decoy into a highly visible location within a fighter buck’s core area several times. I’ll hang a fresh stand where I can see a great distance, bring a set of rattling antlers, a grunt call and see if I can provoke him into coming in for one last brawl. This tactic doesn’t always work, but when it does, I promise you’ll never forget the hunt! It can get pretty “western” if he reads the script.
Lumps & Bumps
Trail camera photos can also show deer with an array of lumps, cysts, or masses on the outer surface of the body. The causes of these lesions can be numerous, but they are easily explained.
An image of a deer with a one-sided, unilateral swelling of the jaw may show an animal with arterial worms. Arterial worms are transmitted by horseflies and can cause swelling under the tongue, resulting in food impactions and jawbone pathology.
Photos showing a large swelling to the brisket or behind the shoulder are usually full of fluid from injury. If full of clear watery fluid, the mass is called a seroma. If full of blood, the mass is referred to as a hematoma. If full of pus, the mass is an abscess and could make the animal sick.
A large swelling below the animal’s belly line is usually a hernia. A hernia in the midline of the abdomen is likely an umbilical hernia. Also, a similar distention of the scrotum may be a scrotal hernia. Deer with several wart-like tumors along the entire trunk of the body usually have a condition called Cutaneous Fibromas. These deer have been bitten by a fly that has transmitted a virus to the animal, resulting in these ugly bumps. Though they are ugly, the lesions are non-painful to the animal and cannot be transmitted to humans through contact or consumption. As long as there is no secondary bacterial infection in the tissue, humans are safe.
Evaluating a deer’s body condition via trail cam image is a slippery slope of speculation. I see this a lot in deer groups on social media websites.
Someone will post a photo of a scrawny, thin deer that has lost a lot of body mass. Immediately, a debate on CWD breaks out. Fact is, deer live hard lives, and their body condition can fluctuate during the year. A photo of a thin buck in late January is nothing unusual given the rigors of the rut and lack of winter calories. Also, a skinny doe in late summer may be nursing twins and trying to keep up with lactational energy demands.
Parasites and bad teeth can be another cause of a whitetail’s poor appearance. I once shot a buck I called “Bad Grampa” after having several years of history with him. The summer before I shot him, he showed up on my cameras routinely. He looked like a rack of bones, and his photos looked like you plucked them from a CWD awareness poster. When I looked him over after the hunt, the buck wasn’t sick at all. His upper cheek teeth were worn so badly the pulp showed in many places. This made chewing and ruminating both painful and slow for the ancient 9 1/2-year-old buck.
Regardless, if you find images of a skinny looking deer on your next card pull, be objective and don’t hit the CWD panic button without considering all the abnormalities’ possible causes.