For people who don’t have a dog as a companion animal (or pet, if you prefer), the notion of antlers for dogs might conjure up images of Max the dog from the Dr Seuss classic, How The Grinch Stole Christmas! (If you’re unfamiliar with that literary masterpiece, long story short: the Grinch attaches an antler to his dog’s head in an attempt to make him resemble a reindeer…) We’ll come back to antler accessories for dogs later, but the main focus of this article is deer antlers given to companion dogs as chews, toys or treats. But given that antlers come from animals, surely they can’t be vegan?
Well, as it happens, despite antlers being an animal product and veganism precluding the use of animal products, there is a strong argument to suggest that giving antlers to companion dogs does not contravene vegan ideals… as long as the antlers have been naturally shed.
Of course, the spectrum of vegan beliefs is varied and there are many vegans out there who think keeping a pet dog does not fit into a vegan lifestyle (something we discuss in our article, Do Vegans Keep Pets?). In the same way, there are varied views on whether or not it is okay to use animal products of any kind, irrespective of whether they have been discarded by the animal in question.
So, in answer to the question – are antlers for dogs vegan? – we have to give the rather inconclusive answer: it depends on your personal perspective. In this article, we’ll delve into the whys and wherefores of the vegan credentials of antlers for dogs, and we’ll look at some alternatives for those whose vegan ethics mean antlers are off the menu for their companion dog. And, we’ll also dip a toe into the world of dog accessories and ask whether attaching a fake set of antlers to your dog’s head is cruel and/or exploitative (even if it does look cute!).
What Are Antlers for Dogs?
As mentioned we are referring to antlers given to dogs to chew. Dogs like chewing things, a habit that can often arise when they are teething as puppies. Just like human babies, chewing things can ease the pain of teething, but later in life, they may also chew things for comfort or even just to investigate something by its taste and texture or to stave off hunger. It is also a way for them to clean their teeth clean, healthy & strong. Whatever the reasons, many dogs appear to enjoy chewing something, whether a rubber toy, a thick rope, a stick, a bone or an antler.
We say a bone or an antler, but in fact, antlers are bones and are extensions of the skulls of (usually male) members of the deer (Cervidae) family. Deer use antlers both for combat with rivals and to attract mates. Most species of deer naturally shed their antlers each year, with these being replaced by the growth of bigger and more branched antlers.
Other Uses of Deer Antlers
Antlers that have been discarded by deer have been always been used by humans and other animals. Wild animals, such as mice and squirrels, gnaw the shed antlers, a process that allows them to obtain calcium and other minerals from the bones. Meanwhile, humans through the ages have utilised antlers to make tools, ornaments and even weapons. There are also dietary supplements and medicines made out of antlers.
Pet Shops & Vendors
The use of antlers in which we are interested here, though, is that of dog chews. Various pet shops and specialist vendors sell deer antler chews in various shapes and sizes, from small off-cuts, through various sizes right up to whole antlers.
They are marketed as natural and long lasting (when compared to plastic, rope or rubber chews) with the implications they are comparatively good for the environment and good value for money. But, are they vegan?
Antlers Are Animal Products… How Can They Be Vegan?
It is true that some vegans will eschew any products that have come from animals irrespective of whether or not the animal in question was killed or subjected to cruelty. In contrast, many vegan would not think twice about picking up and potentially using an attractive feather they had happened across on the forest floor, on the basis that the bird from whom the feather had come clearly no longer had use for it and that no animal had been exploited, killed or harmed for the person to get the feather. There are similar arguments in relation to the vegan credentials of roadkill and indeed organic farming.
Given that deer antlers are naturally shed by the animal (in most cases) it could be argued that someone picking up an antler, cutting it up and selling it as dog chews is similar to someone finding a feather and turning it into a quill pen (okay, not the most sought-after product, but you get the gist). But even if the animal in question hasn’t been killed or harmed to obtain the antler, could there still be a reason antler chews are not vegan?
The Vegan Society’s Definition of Veganism
We have quoted The Vegan Society’s widely accepted definition of veganism many times on this site, and for good reason. In the absence of a specific legal definition of veganism (at the time writing, though this may well change in the future), the definition offered up by The Vegan Society gives us the contextual framework through which we can judge the vegan merits (or otherwise) of food and other products.
A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.
If we take the key points from that definition, let’s see how antler chews size up in terms of veganism:
Seeks to exclude exploitation of… animals for food, clothing or any other purpose
It could be argued that the very commodification of the antler has by definition caused exploitation to the deer from whom the antler came. But exploitation implies some kind of loss or unfair treatment, and in the case of antlers that have been naturally shed by the deer, there is no discernible loss on the part of the deer, so taking a discarded antler is not really exploitative.
This is not the case of course if the antlers have been removed from a deer that has been hunted or farmed for its antlers, or indeed for its meat or as a form of population control (in the case of hunting).
Seeks to exclude cruelty to… animals for food, clothing or any other purpose
If the antlers in question are those that have been naturally shed by wild deer and the antlers have been foraged in a way that has not disturbed or distressed the deer, there appears to have been no cruelty exerted on the deer.
As above, this would not be the case if the deer had been killed for its antlers or other reasons or if the antlers had been removed from the animal rather than found after they had been shed.
Promotes development of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment
This is where the strictest vegans might suggest antlers fall down: there are non-animal alternatives that could be and indeed are used as dog chews, such as rope or rubber. But then very strict vegans would not agree with keeping a dog as a pet anyway.
In dietary terms denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals
This point depends on whether vegans extend their dietary choices to their companion animals (and many do). If so, clearly the fact that antlers are derived from animals means they should technically be off the menu, irrespective of whether or not they had been shed.
They Must be Shed Naturally
Of course, the key point here is that for antler dog chews to have even a chance of being classified as vegan, they need to have been shed naturally by the deer in question. If they have been removed from a deer that has been killed specifically for its antlers or hunted for any other reason, the antlers could not then be classified as vegan. The problem is, how would you know the difference?
There is also the question of the environmental impact of removing antlers from their natural resting place. As mentioned some wild animals gnaw the antlers, perhaps as a way to gain certain minerals, such as calcium that might be difficult to obtain otherwise. Removing the antlers from their natural ecosystem could potentially deprive some animals of these minerals.
Indeed some countries, such as Canada, specifically prohibit the removal of antlers from their national parks, though this might be as much for the enjoyment of future visitors and to discourage the desire for antlers as for ecosystem reasons.
Are Deer Antlers Safe for Dogs?
Putting the vegan and ethical arguments to one side, there is another question that is rather pertinent: are deer antlers safe for dogs to chew on? There is much debate about this on the wild west of the World Wide Web, but there appears little conclusive evidence one way or the other in relation to the health benefits or risks of antler dog chews.
On the one hand, it is possible dogs might be able to obtain some minerals. such as calcium from chewing antlers, but if they are given a decent diet, it is likely they would not be deficient anyway. They are also thought to help dogs keep their teeth clean by helping to reduce the build-up of plaque and tartar.
On the other hand, there is some anecdotal evidence, particularly from vets, that chewing antlers could cause dogs to fracture their teeth. This is because, compared to alternatives, such as rubber chews or ropes, or even softer bones, antlers are very hard (as they were designed by nature to be). It might also be dependent on the type of dog you have, but if in any doubt, seek advice from a qualified vet.
Animal-Free Alternatives to Antlers for Dogs
For those who don’t really buy the argument that antlers are vegan friendly, fear not, there are plenty of dog chews that are free of animal products. For instance, many pet shops sell vegan dog chews made from potato starch or cereals or other plants.
Often these are fortified with various vitamins and minerals to help keep your dog healthy. There are also numerous rubber, plastic or rope chew options available. Or, failing all that, why not go old school and simply give your companion dog a stick to chew on? Natural, vegan and free!
Is It Vegan To Make Your Dog Wear Antlers?
While we have focussed the majority of this article on antlers given to pet/companion dogs as chews, we might as well tackle the semi-related quandary: does it fit within the ethics of veganism to make your dog wear antlers (or indeed any other quirky outfits or adornments that have no other benefit than to provoke mild amusement in humans who encounter said canine)?
Without wanting to be a complete killjoy, essentially adding a silly-looking fluffy antler to the head of your dog for the purposes of amusement to yourself (or your Instagram followers) could be deemed somewhat exploitative.
In the strict sense of veganism, this means it isn’t really the done thing. But those vegans with companion animals tend to be sailing closer to the wind in veganism terms anyway, and as long as the antlers in question offer some benefit to the dog (like keeping it warm in winter… or making it feel like the coolest mutt in the park!), then it could be seen to fall within the bounds of veganism.
We’re not going to tell you how to dress your companion animal, of course (they’ll be enough people doing that on your Insta feed no doubt!), so make your own mind up… or ask your dog: they usually make it abundantly clear if they think you are making them do something they really don’t want to do!
Antler Dog Chews: Vegan or Not?
All things considered, as is the case with many products discussed in the Is It Vegan? section of our site, whether vegans choose to give their companion dog the occasional antler chew is a matter of personal choice. As long as you ensure the antlers have been responsibly sourced and were definitely shed naturally by wild deer, there is a strong argument to suggest they should be classified as vegan friendly.
There will be those at the stricter end of the vegan spectrum who would disagree, but there is no disputing that, from a vegan perspective, dogs chewing antlers is certainly better than them chewing cow hooves or animal bones. At least with shed antlers, no animals have been killed or directly harmed (though the calcium-starved mice might disagree!), and the deer from whom the antlers came have not really been exploited either as they have no use for the lost antlers.