Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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The Reindeer Veterinarian

Pet Column for the week of December 15, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

From Comet and Cupid to Donner and Blitzen, it is of the utmost importance to keep reindeer healthy in December. If Rudolph's bright nose goes out or Prancer slips on an icy rooftop and injures his hoof, the holiday season as we know it may be in jeopardy. But who do you call when Vixen has a toothache, or Dasher's newborn calf is sick?

Look on any reindeer's phone and you will find Dr. Clifford Shipley's cell phone number on speed dial. He is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana and routinely treats deer and reindeer.

He explains that reindeer are unique because, "they are the only cervidae where both sexes have antlers." With all other species, take deer for example, only the males have antlers. Therefore, the next time you see a reindeer with antlers, don't call it a "he" or "she" without further investigating.

"Reindeer's native turf is the tundra," says Dr. Shipley, "they are migratory animals and are always on the move looking for food." Their diets mainly consist of mosses, grasses, and perhaps the occasional berry bush. Just like cows though, reindeer are ruminants with four stomachs and chew their cud.

Since reindeer must have healthy feet to land successfully on any rooftop from slate to cedar shingles, Dr. Shipley mentions that routine hoof trimmings are a good idea. While they do not need metal shoes like horses, reindeer have split hooves that continue to grow like our fingernails. "Usually about once a year we need to trim their feet," he explains.

Although you may feel the need to throw a coat and scarf on those reindeer you see out in the freezing night air, think otherwise. "Its almost impossible to make a reindeer cold," mentions Dr. Shipley. Their normal habitat in the winter can be quite frigid and to help stay warm, "their hair is hollow and provides good insulation for them," he goes on to say.

If you still do not believe reindeer can fly, Mark and Julie Hardy from Hardy's Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul, Ill., can prove otherwise. They flew to Alaska to bring back a few reindeer for their farm that is open to the public from August through December. Mr. Hardy explains that, "they all had their own crate specially made which were loaded into the cargo hold of a 747."

If you are eager to lure a few reindeer to your house this holiday season, Mr. Hardy divulges his secret. "they love graham crackers, that's what we use for treats. Perhaps a few crackers on the rooftop might be an incentive for them to stop in for a visit.

Mr. Hardy mentions an interesting phenomenon he has observed after working with reindeer everyday, "all the reindeer make a clicking sound when they walk." According to a paper published this November in a research journal called BMC Biology, this may be a way that the animals communicate.

Thus, if you hear clicks coming from your roof as the well known holiday song puts it, "up on the housetop, click, click, click," it just might be the reindeer's way of saying "happy holidays."

If you are interested in meeting a few reindeer in real life you can visit the Hardy's website at for hours and directions.