How Examining Deer Hooves Can Help You Understand Them Better


Examining your deer from head to hoof can give you insights on what’s going on with the herd and may help you understand more about them and your management strategy.

When hunters kill deer they often examine them for any abnormalities that might indicate whether they’re safe to consume. If there are large growths, such as cutaneous fibromas, hanging off the hide, they take notice.

Slipping hooves can be an indication of hemorrhagic disease or an issue with supplemental feeding. That’s why it’s best to check your deer from head to hoof when you kill one and take note of anything unusual.

But rarely do they examine the hooves of a deer,which can be an indicator of the overall health of that animal. However, with the popularity of social media today, more hunters have shared images of a condition often call “slipper foot,” which has become more common in recent years with widespread outbreaks of hemorrhagic disease (HD), one source of this abnormality in whitetails.

Slipper foot gets its name from the appearance of elongated hooves that often resemble the shape of an elf’s shoe. This condition does not always cause serious issues for deer, but might be an indicator that the animal dealt with a systematic disease.

In the case of many of the current discussions around the slipper foot abnormality, deer could have experienced and survived hemorrhagic disease. In the chronic form of the disease (not to be confused with CWD), in which an animal survives the initial onset, a disruption in hoof growth will occur due to the development of a high fever, which creates a hoof abnormality. In many cases, the slipper foot form occurs; however, in some cases, the hoof can actually slough or break off.

Though a likely root cause, HD is not the only reason deer get slipper foot. On properties that rely heavily on deer feeders, supplemental feeding can lead to a form of laminitis, which is caused by deer consuming too many carbohydrates in a short period of time.

Regardless of if it’s corn or pelletized feed, the consumption of too many carbohydrates can cause an excess of acid in the rumen. This decreases the efficiency of digestion, specifically with regard to carbohydrates.

Other causes of slipper foot include nutritional deficiencies, including selenium. Selenium is believed to be readily available in most habitats, however, is often a micronutrient focal point among deer mineral enthusiasts. Certain toxicity in grasses, such as fescue, can also cause slipper foot, though this most often occurs in domestic livestock and not whitetails.

The good news is that although the abnormalities were derived from some illness or deficiency, most likely the deer can be safely consumed.

— Jeremy and Emily Flinn are professional deer biologists living in Pennsylvania.