If you’re trying to boost your performance in the gym, or in certain rooms of your home, or just looking for a traditional catch-all medicine, then you’re looking for this stuff. Deer antler velvet, the elixer, can be consumed as a powder, popped as a pill, or sprayed on your body and, who knows, it might even work. Maybe. But we are here to talk about deer antler velvet before it’s freeze dried and turned into a supplement—as in the fuzzy tissue that covers deer antlers as they grow in summer. It is, after all, some pretty incredible stuff (which has a lot to do with why people drink it, eat it, and spray it).

Deer Antler Velvet: What Makes It So Amazing?

Let’s start with deer antlers themselves and our fascination with them. Every hunter’s heart quickens at the mere sight of antlers, and humans have kept them as totems and trophies since forever. That antlers symbolize strength and virility makes perfect sense, of course, as they are both the ultimate expression of machismo for males of the deer species and among the fastest growing tissues on earth. And this is where deer antler velvet comes in. Without it, antlers don’t grow. With it, they grow like almost nothing else.

Take a mature whitetail buck you see munching flowers in your backyard or soybeans in a farmer’s summer field? His velvet-covered antlers are growing up to 2 inches a day! Bull elk surpass that growth rate by a bunch, and a bull moose puts on a full pound of antler per day! This rate of growth is so amazing, in fact, that researchers are studying antler growth and the rapid cell division that accompanies that process in hopes of curing cancer.

Deer Antler Velvet: How It Works

Two elk, with velvet antlers shining in the sun, walk across a summer meadow
A pair of summer bulls, their velvet antlers shining in the sun. John Hafner Photography

So how does deer antler velvet help make all that happen? First, you need to know that antlers, unlike horns, are cast off and regrown annually. The males of every North American deer species shed their antlers after the breeding season, usually in late winter. Then in the spring, their antlers begin to grow back, starting with little nubs—called the pedicles—that are covered in fuzz, or velvet. While growing, the antler itself is much like cartilage and is soft and spongy; the velvet carries blood and nutrients to the cartilage, enabling it to grow a bit each day.

Obviously, a mature buck–which typically carries a much larger set of antlers–will exhibit faster growth than a young buck, but the process is amazingly fast either way. Most deer in North America will start growing their antlers in April and will be largely done my mid- to late-August. Bucks and bulls are well aware of the tender nature of their antlers during this growing phase and go to great lengths to protect them from harm.

As summer gives way to fall, the growth slows, then comes to a halt, and the velvet dies and dries. Since antlers form from the bases and grow up and out, the area around the pedicle and the main beam itself hardens first, followed by hardening of the tines, from the base to the tip. When hardening process is complete–usually it takes several days—the velvet is no longer of use and is shed.

How and Why Deer Shed Their Velvet

A whitetail deer with strands of bloody velvet hanging from its antlers
An early-fall whitetail sheds velvet, with bloody strands of the fuzzy covering dangling from its now-hard antlers. John Hafner Photography

The velvet-shedding process seems to affect animals in a variety of ways. For some, the hanging shreds of velvet that covered their antlers becomes a sudden irritation, and as the velvet dries and peels away, bucks and bulls will assist the process by rubbing their antlers against brushy vegetation and small saplings. I’ve talked to wildlife photographers and whitetail experts who have witnessed the complete process, and they’ve reported that velvet shedding can take place in as little as a few hours. The late wildlife photographer Charlie Alsheimer once recorded a buck completely shed his velvet in 50 minutes. In other case, it may take up three days. Often, strips of peeling velvet will hang from the hard antlers, giving the rack a shaggy or shrub-like appearance. Some bucks have been seen eating the bloody velvet, though this isn’t something every deer does. Across much of whitetail range, the velvet shedding process is typically completed by mid-September.

The Hard-Antler Phase

By that point, the antlers are now literally bone, and they take on a new importance for bucks and bulls. Next to sheer body size, antlers are the most obvious indicators of a buck’s maturity and, to a degree, stature in the herd. While huge antlers can be a sign of dominance and herd stature, a buck or bull with a nasty attitude, physical strength, and fighting ability can often trump a rival with more impressive headgear. Still, as soon as deer antler velvet is shed, bucks and bulls are no longer protecting their antlers, but instead using them to aggressively rub trees, spar with herd-mates, and engage in the occasional serious brawl. It’s also thought that mature does intentionally seek out genetically superior mates, and impressive antlers are a prime indicator of that. 

A buck or bull’s once-velvet-covered antlers will now remain hard as bone for about six month, when dropping testosterone levels signal the buck to drop them in late winter or early spring. For a brief few weeks, buck and bull are without any headgear. But as spring returns to the landscape, the process begins all over again. And the good news for both deer and hunters alike, is that their antlers will likely be even larger than the year before. But not until the end of the summer-long growing process, made possible by deer antler velvet.