Looking after Newborn and Orphan Fawns

Under normal conditions, very little needs to be done to healthy, newborn deer. In fact, nothing should be done to a fawn/calf that is still wet with uterine fluids. Excessive disturbance before the newborn is completely dry may cause its mother to reject itNewborns are generally left alone by the dam when she goes off to feed. During the first few days of life a newborn will freeze when an intruder approaches. During this stage it is very easy to approach and catch.

Once the fawn/calf is completely dry, it can be caught and several procedures conducted. Every attempt should be made to minimize the number of times a young deer is disturbed. It is important to be prepared so that all necessary procedures can be carried out at one time. Pick up the young deer with gloved (latex) hands or a clean sheet, towel or blanket. This minimizes bacterial exposure and the transfer of human scent if the newborn is to be returned to the mother after tagging, etc. farmed whitetail does will generally re-accept fawns, even after human contact if placed approximately where they were originally picked up.

At some point every deer farmer will be required to hand-rear a fawn/calf. This need will arise either from the death of a dam soon after birth, rejection of the young by the dam or from mismothering. Each case will vary depending on the weather conditions, how quickly after birth the fawn/calf is discovered, whether the newborn received enough colostrum and its general health status.

Rearing Orphan and Rejected Newborns

The level of care required to save an orphaned or rejected newborn will depend on the viability of the offspring and the ability of the producer to correctly assess it. The following points may be helpful in assessing the immediate status of the newborn.

Rejection almost always follows a C-section or an assisted birthing in fallow and red deer. Therefore, in these situations, assume the offspring will be rejected and remove it at birth. Difficult birthings (dystocias) which are not assisted may also lead to rejection.

Offspring which have lived through unassisted dystocias should be monitored closely, but not removed until rejection has clearly occurred. Excessive disturbance in and around the birthing paddock, or handling newborns before they are dry, will increase the likelihood of abandonment. First-time dams have a higher incidence of deserting offspring, while it is rare in subsequent births in whitetail deer, mothers of triplets will often ignore the smallest of the group, making it a candidate for hand-rearing.

Determining whether or not a particular newborn is an orphan is not always easy. If the dam dies during an assisted birth, the situation will be obvious. However, if the mother dies one or more days after giving birth, it may be difficult to determine which newborn is hers, unless all offspring are ear tagged and the parentage is known.

Many fawns/calves of the same age may be hidden in the paddock at any one time, making differentiation difficult. To ensure that the correct fawn/calf is removed, astute observation is necessary. If a given newborn is not seen nursing successfully within three to five hours, it may be assumed to be abandoned or orphaned. Remember: in a farming environment, it is not uncommon for lactating dams to allow orphans to nurse.

Weak, depressed young deer require assistance, whether or not they are orphans. After four days it should not be possible to catch a fawn/calf. Any that can be caught may be undernourished and require assistance.

The Checklist

When hand-rearing newborns, patience is essential. Assess the status of the animal. Many newborn deer benefit from a brisk rubbing of the chest with a dry towel. This does two things; stimulates breathing and helps to dry the animal.

The first obstacle in hand-rearing newborns is hypothermia. This is a life-threatening drop in body temperature, closely associated with being born in cold, wet conditions and is a significant cause of perinatal mortality. A wet animal loses body heat rapidly.

Newborns of all species have little ability to generate their own heat and very little insulation to prevent its loss. As a result, a deer born outside in cool, wet weather will quickly go into shock if it is not dried immediately after birth. Orphans are often chilled (hypothermic)and wet. Since the dam normally dries her newborn within an hour of birth, abandoned or orphaned newborns should immediately be dried and provided with supplemental heat. To do this, place the deer in a warm room and rub briskly with a dry towel. Direct, radiant heat, such as a heat lamp, is an excellent method of providing supplemental heat to a hypothermic newborn.

To be of benefit, a heat lamp must be placed the correct distance from the newborn. This distance will depend on the wattage of the heat lamp. If it is set too close to an immobile newborn, severe burns can result. If too far away, then the animal does not receive adequate warmth. To determine the proper distance, rest your hand on the deer directly under the center of the lamp for 4-5 minutes. There should be no discomfort. Continue testing the heat until the deer becomes mobile.

It is best to focus the heat over the chest. A dry towel can be placed over the newborn to help retain body heat, but towels and blankets may also stress the newborn. Towels can retain moisture and act as heat sinks, so they may actually impede recovery if not checked and replaced regularly. Constantly replacing shifted towels can cause the newborn unneeded anxiety.

Once revived, young deer can be very active. They can, and invariably do, knock over unsecured heat lamps and IV stands, so it is necessary to make sure that all lamps and cords are secured safely. It is important to permit the deer to move away from the heat lamp once it regains its normal body temperature. At this stage, a young deer will often determine its own comfort zone and will usually lay at the edge of the heated area.

The next hurdle in the course of hand-raising deer is feeding them. The composition of deer milks varies considerably from that of other domestic species.

Orphaned offspring should receive all of the colostrum they are willing to drink within the first 12 hours of life. It is wise to freeze and save all excess deer colostrum for this purpose. If colostrum is not available from a deer, then ewe or goat colostrum should be provided. It is often impossible to obtain fresh colostrum when it is needed, therefore, frozen ewe or goat colostrum should be collected well in advance of the birthing season. If kept frozen, it will retain its full beneficial effect for over 6 months. There are also man-made colostrum replacers specifically designed for deer.

Several formulae have been reported. It is important to recognize that regardless which formula is selected, cow’s milk by itself is generally inappropriate for young deer. Goat’s milk, on the other hand, seems to be an excellent substitute for deer milk. It should also be noted that while the overall balance of protein, fat, lactose and water is very important, the exact composition of the mixture is less critical than the care and attention the newborn receives.

It is best if the newborn will drink on its own. Use bottles specifically designed for pets or cross-cut nipples on baby bottles. (Young deer tend to prefer the old fashioned rubber nipples as opposed to the new silicone ones.)

If the young deer is unwilling or comatose, then it may be necessary to carefully pass a stomach tube and give it 20 or 40 cc every hour until it has consumed about 150 ml. If new to this procedure, call in the Veterinarian! It is most important not to inadvertently place the tube in an airway, causing aspiration, pneumonia or drowning.

If a young deer appears lethargic and is unwilling to drink, it may be suffering from dehydration, hypothermia, low blood glucose and/or a host of other maladies. At this stage it is useful to prepare oral electrolyte solutions, with additional glucose. These solutions can be administered directly by stomach tube. Every 30 to 60 minutes, 50-70 ml should be administered, until the newborn brightens and begins to eat on it’s own. It is best not to mix these preparations with milk. However, if a young deer has diarrhea it may be useful to alternate feeding milk one time and electrolytes the next. If using a milk replacer, diluting the concentration may also solve the problem.

Hygiene is vital at this stage. It is important to realize that milk or milk replacers are excellent media for the growth of bacteria. For this reason, strict cleaning procedures must be followed to prevent disease. Milk replacers should be prepared as needed, not made in advance.

The rearing area must be kept strictly sanitized while raising deer. Bedding that is wet or soiled with urine, feces and spilled feed will become a breeding ground for disease-producing organisms. The area where orphaned deer are reared should be well ventilated but warm and free of drafts. A light source mimicking daylight hours, or direct sunlight, is important to produce the essential vitamin D. Also, the area should be secure from predators. Smooth and solid walls will help prevent injury. The floors should be well supplied with clean, dry, dust free straw. Never use sawdust, as inhalation is a problem. Rearing areas should provide at least one square meter per housed fawn/calf.

Hardening off is one of the last steps in hand raising young deer. This is accomplished by equalizing the temperature of the rearing area with the ambient temperature for about two weeks before releasing the deer. Before releasing hand-reared deer back to the herd, fecal samples should be taken at 2-4 weeks of age to determine if there are any parasitic infections.

Advantages and Disadvantages

There are both advantages and disadvantages of hand-rearing deer. Some advantages are:

  • Hand rearing saves young deer that would otherwise die.
  • The deer farmer gains experience that may allow the saving of a valuable deer at some future date.
  • If used properly, hand-reared deer can help move the rest of the herd into areas where they may be reluctant to go. They can also act as a calming influence on the herd.
  • Hand-rearing is necessary for the farmer who is required to handle deer on a regular basis as in the case of artificial insemination (AI) or urine collection.

Some disadvantages are:

  • Hand-rearing deer involves a great deal of work.
  • It can be costly, depending on the number of deer and the cost of milk substitute.
  • Continual close contact with humans will impart a significant degree of bonding. This loss of fear of humans translates into a loss of respect for humans, bucks/stags become extremely dangerous during the rut. Once the rut begins, hand-reared male offspring will change from being the most docile pet to the most aggressive adversary on the farm.
  • All hand-reared male deer should be either castrated by 6-7 months of age if the genetic potential of the deer is not of critical concern, or slaughtered at 16-17 months of age.
  • If hand-reared deer are returned to the herd, they can be a nuisance to handle because they do not move away from the handlers.
  • During handling, hand-reared deer may lead the others members of the herd away from where they are meant to go.
  • Human contact exposes young deer to more kinds of bacteria, disease and stressors than if they are raised by their dam, possibly increasing mortality.



A 1 ml. Injection of an antibiotic such as long acting penicillin or long acting oxytetracycline may be useful to decrease the incidence of peri-natal infections. An e-coli immunity booster is a good idea and for whitetail in selenium deficient regions, a selenium injection is a must.


Dipping the navel in a strong (7%) tincture of iodine solution or blue coat spray is a good way to reduce the incidence of umbilical infections. However, in most species it is necessary to dip the umbilical stump immediately after birth. Usually dipping the navel after even 2-3 hours of birth is of little benefit. If navel infections become a problem on a particular farm, it may help to institute a program of navel dipping at birth. It would also be helpful to ensure that the fawning paddock is clean and dry as many bacteria proliferate in wet conditions. If left untreated, navel ill becomes joint ill and is fatal in most cases. (The farmer may also consider coating the bottom of the hooves which are soft and vulnerable to abrasions, allowing bacteria to penetrate.)


While it may be too soon to determine whose offspring is whose, tagging the young deer and recording the weight, birth date, and other information may be beneficial later when the mothering up process takes place. Plan ahead here. Color coding or using left/right ears to identify males from females is helpful later.


It is important to know birth weights. Fawns/calves can be easily and safely weighed at this time by suspending them in a clean cloth sack from a small hand scale.


Young deer under 3 months of age are too young to benefit from any vaccine, therefore, vaccinations should not be performed at this age.

More Tips on Hand-Rearing Baby Deer

  • Feed by bottle. Bucket or multiple sucking unit are ill-advised as they increase the passive transfer of bacterial infection.
  • Maintain strict hygiene of feeding apparatus. Keep all bottle-fed fawns and their respective feeding apparatus separate for the first two weeks. Fawns soon become accustomed to the feeding routine and imprint on the feeder. It is considered better to under-feed than to over-feed. Do not give in to cries for additional feedings if not warranted.
  • Mimic maternal stimulation of defecation and urination by massaging the rump and perineum with a damp sponge or tissue at least two times per day until the young deer should develop control of these functions by two to three weeks of age.
    Provide good quality pasture and palatable grain concentrates from tow weeks of age; wean from six to eight weeks.
  • Ensure fresh, clean water is available at all times.
  • Scours, arthritis and other bacterial diseases can be overcome by ensuring strict hygiene, good management, vaccination and optimal nutrition. However, young deer can deteriorate and die quickly if weaning signs are ignored or a Vet is not consulted immediately.
  • Hand-raising newborn deer cannot be done successfully without the advice of a Vet with experience in deer (or, at the very least, sheep and goats). Establish a relationship with your Vet early in the deer farming experience.
  • Never bottle feed a buck without first understanding the risks!!! They can be aggressive, especially toward those with whom they have imprinted, since they have lost most of their natural instinct to fear humans. No deer in hard antler can be trusted.


Bottle Feeding Schedule

Age Feeding Sessions / Day Quantity in Grams / Day Food
Week 1 every 4-5 hours around the clock 300-600 increasing daily milk *
Week 2 6-7 800-1200 add grasses, water, soil #
Week 3-5 4-5 1000-1500 at room temperature
Week 6-7 2-3 1500
Week 8-9 1 Ad lib
Week 10-14 Wean, turn out with herd

* Remember to massage intestine and rectum; watch out for diarrhea!
# Feces should resemble adults (dark, hard, holds shape), also harden off fawns at this time.