SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

The animal welfare problem with velvet antler removal

Deer velvet antler velvetting

Male deer (stags) grow and shed antlers each year. ‘Velvet antler’ refers to antlers that are still growing – during this stage, they are covered with a velvet-like covering of soft fine hair. While growing, velvet antler receives a full blood supply and contains nerve endings. In New Zealand, deer velvet is surgically removed from farmed red deer (wapiti) and is sold as a health supplement or traditional medicine and often exported.

The removal of velvet antler involves the amputation of live tissue, and is classed as a painful and significant surgical procedure under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. Only a veterinarian or person approved by the National Velvetting Standards Body may perform the procedure, and pain relief is required for the animal.

The practice is sometimes claimed to be carried out for animal or human safety reasons, but it’s important to remember that antlers could instead be removed once they have hardened (and no longer contain nerves and blood supply). The United Kingdom banned the practice of velvet antler amputation in 1980 and only remove antlers once they have hardened, to minimise the risk of pain being felt by the animal. While deer velvet is claimed to have positive health benefits for humans, evidence on this is extremely limited.

Welfare concerns

The procedure of removing velvet antler (called “velvetting”) raises multiple concerns, predominantly the pain and distress it can cause the animal, which SPCA deem as unnecessary.

Quite simply, velvetting is painful for the animal - it involves the amputation of innervated and vascularised tissue. In addition, unlike for other practices such as tail docking lambs or disbudding calves, velvetting is not practiced for the benefit of the animal itself.

SPCA considers this practice to be one of the most significant welfare issues within the New Zealand deer industry. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee has also acknowledged that velvetting is a controversial issue.

The only licensed anaethetic approved for velvet antler removal is a relatively short-acting local anaethetic, and deer have been shown to exhibit pain when this has worn off. As well as the pain suffered by the animal after the procedure, psychological distress can also be caused during isolation and restraint, and after completion of the procedure.

Until velvetting is phased out, SPCA advocates for a requirement to provide stags with post-operative pain relief to minimise distress to the animal as they recover.

Requirements for removing velvet antler

Currently, the practice of velvet antler removal is regulated in New Zealand. It allows for non-veterinarians to remove velvet antler, as long as pain relief is used throughout the procedure, and recognises the National Velvetting Standards Body (NVSB) as an organisation authorised to approve farmers to remove velvet.

Even with these requirements and the regulated use of pain relief, SPCA considers that the practice is not necessary, as it is done primarily for commercial purposes. It does not align well with the principles laid out by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in the painful husbandry procedures code of welfare (Minimum Standard 1: Justification for Painful Procedures).

NAWAC has stated in this code of welfare that painful husbandry procedures “must only be performed where there are no other practical, economically viable, effective, less noxious alternatives to the procedure”. In addition, they recommend that painful procedures “should be looked upon as transitional management practices”. SPCA strongly agrees with these statements.

SPCA's position

SPCA opposes the removal of velvet antler for commercial purposes.

While velvetting is still allowed in New Zealand, we strongly advocate that the amputation of velvet antler should only be performed for therapeutic purposes for the stag, and must only be carried out by a qualified veterinarian (or a veterinary student under the direct supervision of a veterinarian) to minimise any pain or distress to the animal.

How you can help

You can help by raising awareness of the practice. Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues about velvetting and explain why it should not be allowed. Do not buy any products that contain deer velvet.

You can also meet with your local member of parliament and write to the Minister responsible for animal welfare to advocate for a phase-out of the practice of deer velvetting in New Zealand.

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