The males of many species of deer grow and shed large antlers every year. When the antler is still growing it is described as being "in velvet" as it is covered in a skin and short, fuzzy hairs a little like rough velvet. Later the skin is shed and the antlers become hard and boney. And eventually the entire antler falls off.
Some people think that only the skin is the "velvet", but actually it is the entire antler is cut off and preserved in the velvet stage. The antler may be dried, or preserved in oil or alcohol. The dried antler was traditionally prepared in a soup, but now more often ground and prepared as a capsule.
How is it Used?
Velvet antler is used in traditional medicine. In China it is used as a treatment forb various conditions. In Korea it is often consumed daily as a general health tonic. It's use has been imported into Western complimentary medicine, most commonly for use to prevent or treat the symptoms of arthritis.
However in the United States the FDA does not recognize its use as a therapeutic medicine. So Velvet antler can only be sold as a nutritional supplement. Any deliver method other than oral (such as a sub-lingual spray) is not permit, nor may products be marketed with claims that the cure or prevent a disease or disorder.
Velvet antler is increasingly in demand for body building and as a sports supplement.
Particularly controversial is the use of a concentrated spray, delivered under the tongue. Because this deliver method is not technically "oral" it may not be permitted as a nutraceutical. And this form of the product may contain a growth hormone (IGF-1) that is a banned performance enhancer in professional sports. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was accused of using this substance but never tested positive. And golfer Vijay Singh used it, unaware that it was not permitted. In any case, experts doubt ingesting IGF-1 in this way would actually assist with athletic performance.
Velvet antler is reputed to enhance sexual function, but objective trails do not demonstrate this effect, and modern pharmaceuticals are a reliable alternative. However hunting it for this purpose has driven the Tibetan red deer almost to extinction.
While synthetic alternative have largely replaced this use in developed nations, new putative uses are waiting in the wings such as to combat baldness (Li et al, 2014).
In some cases deer in velvet can be preserved as taxidermy specimens by methods such as preserving the velvet antler in formaldehyde, freeze drying, or stripping the antlers and applying artificial velvet.
Other beliefs about velvet antler that have proved incorrect include that it serves a heat dissipation function.
Cervidae species are now farmed to produce velvet antler which is more profitable than all other deer products (venison, hide etc). In the United States velvet antler is produced using elk, in New Zealand red deer, and in China Sika deer.
Velvet antler is supplied with arteries and nerves. So removing them is painful to the deer. This can be mitigated by the use of analgesic drugs such as lidocaine.
However, deer are also not domesticated species. So even if you disregard the pain of the amputation they will find the capture and handing associated with antler removal extremely stressful. especially as it will occur every year so long as they remain in the farmed herd.
While there is promising animal-based data, human clinical trials relating to the use of velvet antler generally find no significant effect. On this basis it is difficult to justify a harvest technique that is stressful and painful to the animal.
Should certain ingredient be found to have therapeutic benefit, there are likely to be other methods for collecting them. For example glucosamine and chondroitin can be manufactured from shellfish and fish cartilage, by products of the fishing industry.
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- Conaglen, H. M., Suttie, J. M., & Conaglen, J. V. (2003). Effect of deer velvet on sexual function in men and their partners: a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Archives of sexual behavior, 32(3), 271-278.
- Hove, K., & Steen, J. B. (1978). Blood flow, calcium deposition and heat loss in reindeer antlers. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 104(1), 122-128.
- Rayner, V., & Ewen, S. W. B. (1981). Do the blood vessels of the antler velvet of the red deer have an adrenergic innervation?. Experimental Physiology, 66(1), 81-86.
- Li, J. J., Li, Z., Gu, L. J., Wang, Y. B., Lee, M. R., & Sung, C. K. (2014). Aqueous Extract of Red Deer Antler Promotes Hair Growth by Regulating the Hair Cycle and Cell Proliferation in Hair Follicles. The Scientific World Journal, 2014.