Have you spotted a buck with unusual antlers on a recent hunting journey? Do you want to bag this big guy, but are concerned that its thick-based, knobby, or super-velvety antlers are a sign of an unhealthy deer? If so, you should know that the crazy-horned beast you've witnessed is a cactus buck, and it might be perfectly fine to consume the meat.

What Is a Cactus Buck?

In normal whitetail bucks, the shortening of summer days triggers a boost in the animals' testosterone levels. As this process occurs, the bucks shed their velvet from their antlers and their antlers enter a stage of non-growth. In cactus whitetail bucks, though, there isn't enough testosterone in the body to be signaled by decreased sunlight, so their hormones never tell their antlers that it's time to stop growing for the year.

What Causes Low Testosterone in Deer?

There are a number of factors that could have led to the peculiar state of the deer you spotted. Some whitetails are born with a developmental problem in which the testicles never descend into the scrotum, thus reducing their level of testosterone production. These deer are cactus deer from the get-go; they never develop a normal antler growth pattern.

Other whitetail deer start out with normal antler growth, but become cactus deer later in life as the result of a testicular injury that lowers or eliminates their ability to produce testosterone.

Finally, a well-known ruminant viral infection (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease) can interfere with testosterone production in whitetail deer, thus leading to the development of cactus-like antlers.

Is the Meat Safe to Eat?

If the antlers on the cactus deer you've spotted grew abnormally as the result of a birth defect or injury, then it's perfectly fine to eat the venison. If his horns are the result of the EHD viral infection, though, it's recommended that you don't eat the meat. Humans can't contract EHD, but they can become sick by consuming meat that has been tainted by secondary infections.

Try to get a closer look at the buck before taking a shot. If their funny-looking antlers are accompanied by any of the following signs of EHD, it's best not to make the kill.

  • Rapid breathing
  • Swollen face and/or neck
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Bluish tongue (the result of decreased oxygen)

If you notice any of these symptoms after you've shot a deer, contact your local Department of Fish and Game. Oftentimes, they'll authorize an additional kill tag for whitetail deer hunting.

If you've spotted a big buck with bizarre antlers and you're wondering if it's okay to bag and eat this deer, the answer is maybe. Cactus buck contract their condition in various different ways, so it's important to rule out infection as a cause of antler overgrowth before deciding to consume the venison.