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This time of year, there are more and more questions about reindeer, especially from fascinated children. We sat down with Dr. Josh Link of the North Pole Veterinary Hospital and asked questions submitted by some of our littlest audience members all about reindeer. Check out this special holiday episode of Your Vet Wants You to Know with your whole family to learn more about these amazing creatures.

[00:01:45] Female Voice: Do you have any questions for the reindeer vet?

Child’s Voice: How do magic reindeer fly? 

[00:02:06] Dr. Lancellotti: Thank you, everyone, for joining me today. I have a very special episode for all of the families out there. On the show, we typically talk about how to take care of your pets, different health topics related to dogs and cats, and sometimes, we have special species too. Today’s episode is not necessarily for taking care of your own animals, but learning more about some special animals that we talk about more around the holiday season. I have with me, Dr. Josh Link, who works at North Pole Veterinary Hospital, and he is going to be answering some questions that have come from our audience regarding reindeer. Thank you very much for joining us, Dr. Link. 

[00:02:48] Dr. Link: Hi. It’s great to be here. 

[00:02:50] Dr. Lancellotti: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you wind up at the North Pole?

[00:02:55] Dr. Link: That’s a great question. I’m a general practitioner veterinarian, and I grew up in Eastern Pennsylvania very close to some dairy farms, and worked a lot with large animal on the east coast. Then, when I was applying to vet school, there was a new program that was starting here in Alaska (specifically here in Fairbanks). That was a combined program between University of Alaska Fairbanks and Colorado State University. Just on a blind whim, I applied, and by some stroke of luck, I got into the program. Having only been west of the Mississippi a handful of times in my life, I packed up and moved to Alaska to go to veterinary school. When I was in veterinary school, I got the really unique chance to work with a couple of different Arctic species and a lot of sled dogs. Then, after I graduated, I decided to come back to Alaska to practice veterinary medicine. 

[00:03:46] Dr. Lancellotti: Now, did you ever think, while growing up, that you would live in Alaska? 

[00:03:51] Dr. Link: No! I never, in my wildest dreams, could have pinned that down. It’s a great lifestyle. It’s a great place to live. I feel really fortunate to be here. 

[00:04:01] Dr. Lancellotti: Do you want to tell our listeners what you were doing, earlier today, before we recorded the episode?

[00:04:06] Dr. Link: Oh yeah. So, it’s a beautiful day here. In interior, Alaska, it’s just about 10 above zero. Last week, I think the high one of the days was like 35 below. So, we’re enjoying a nice little heat wave here. And I have a very small sled dog team. Mostly, I ski with them, riding along on a sled behind them. They need a lot of exercise and training, so we were out earlier today, while the sun was still shining. 

[00:04:33] Dr. Lancellotti: That sounds like a lot of fun. I would love to be able to do that one day. 

[00:04:37] Dr. Link: Yeah. It’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot of dog poop, but there’s lots of tail wags and I think they have more fun than I do. 

Dr. Link's Experience with Reindeer

[00:04:46] Dr. Lancellotti: I bet. They seem like they would really enjoy the outdoor activity and running around and working as a team together. But we’re going to talk more today about a different species. I would love to hear what your background is with reindeer and how you got to be so knowledgeable about these particular animals. 

[00:05:06] Dr. Link: I was really lucky when I was a veterinary student. The University of Alaska maintains (actually) two seperate herds (at the time) of reindeer. One that was used for livestock management, and another that was used for physiology and anatomy. I was fortunate enough to work with a herd of roughly 40-50 reindeer and a small herd of caribou that were ranged from 10 to 15. That research facility also housed some really neat Arctic animals called muskox. I got a chance to not only work with some incredible veterinarians, but also some of the top intellectual researchers in the field, who have done a lot of the reindeer and muskox research, both in the United States and internationally. I got to get to know and meet a lot of really cool people that were really knowledgeable about these animals, and then on a daily basis, I got to work with them. A big portion of my job was developing animal-handling techniques and getting them used to people working with them, touching them, and making a positive experience. So I did that for two years. Then, after I graduated from veterinary school, I came back here. There’s a pretty substantial number of people up here that have reindeer as pets, pack animals, and livestock. You never know what kind of call you’ll get during the day, but our general practice, on occasion, has been known to go out and see quite a few reindeer.

musk ox calves
Three month old musk ox calves. Images courtesy of Dr. Josh Link.

Are reindeer friendly?

[00:06:29] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s really cool. When I was in vet school, we had our zoo animal rotations. I remember spending time at the zoo and hearing the zoo veterinarians talk about zebras and how their behavior and temperament aren’t really as friendly as you would expect. What about reindeer? Are they personable? Do they want to come over and interact with you? 

[00:06:53] Dr. Link: Yeah. Actually, they do. In the United States, we distinguish between reindeer and caribou. In Europe, and on an international basis, it’s a little less subtle. They mostly refer to them as just caribou, but reindeer are a domesticated form of actual wild caribou. It was really interesting. In this facility, we would have reindeer and caribou actually housed together in the same pen and the caribou would be very standoffish- pretty wild and feral, standing away. Whereas, the reindeer would come directly up to you. Even though they’re very similar, they would actually segregate in the same pen. They would interact at times, but they would each have their own social groups. It was kind of neat. 

[00:07:34] Dr. Lancellotti: Interesting. That’s actually one of the first questions that I got from our audience.

What types of animals are reindeer?

[00:07:39] Dr. Lancellotti: What type of animals are reindeer and what are some of their special characteristics? You mentioned reindeer vs caribou. Is there something that distinguishes between the two species? What makes a reindeer? 

[00:07:53] Dr. Link: That’s a great question. It actually takes a pretty trained eye. People in the field that work a lot with them can pick them out, but if you stuck two next to each other, you’d have to really look to tell the difference. Most of what we see (the difference between the two) is caribou are much taller. They’re usually thinner and leaner. Their antlers can have a slightly different shape and size to them, depending on where they’re from. Reindeer are usually lower to the ground. They’re wider and stockier, and oftentimes, they are able to put on more weight because they’ve been bred as livestock. They don’t have to run from predators. They have been bred more to be lower to the ground and more docile too. Behaviorally, we’ll see that approachability is much easier. A lot of issues we would have with caribou were when we would have the calves born- doing a health check on the calves. Caribou mothers are very defensive, whereas reindeer mothers are much more trusting. 

[00:08:48] Dr. Lancellotti: Should the expression be more like “mama caribou” instead of “mama bear?” 

[00:08:53] Dr. Link: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I would not come in between a caribou or moose calf and its mother. Quite honestly, here in Alaska, it’s one of the things we fear more. I’m always fearful of bears, but probably the most dangerous thing here is getting in between a moose calf and a mom.

In what parts of the world can you find reindeer?

[00:09:09] Dr. Lancellotti: You mentioned you were in Alaska. You’re up at the North Pole Veterinary Clinic. What other parts of the world might reindeer be found?

[00:09:18] Dr. Link: Reindeer and caribou are found in the Northern Hemisphere, so very close to the Arctic circle and polar north. There are sub-arctic and Arctic herds, and they’ve all got their own little subspecies. They can all still breed with each other, but they each have their own regions and their own specific traits. They span all the way from Norway, Sweden and Finland, Canada and North America, and actually Russia has a large population of reindeer and caribou, as well. 

Who has bigger antlers, reindeer or moose?

[00:09:46] Dr. Lancellotti: Interesting. And I actually have a question that came directly from one of our younger listeners. 

[00:09:55] Landon: Are reindeer antlers bigger than moose’s? 

[00:10:04] Dr. Lancellotti: What our listener, Landon, from Ohio was asking is, “Are reindeer antlers bigger than moose’s?” 

[00:10:13] Dr. Link: That is a great question. They can be, but in different ways. Depending on the size of moose and the area that they live in, moose develop what’s called a palm or a paddle. Their antlers actually grow wide. Here in Alaska, they can be 60 inches and wider. You can imagine these huge things that they’re carrying around. On the other hand, caribou will oftentimes grow taller, upwards and high. Weight-wise, a large bull caribou vs. a large bull moose can be fairly comparable in weight. Bull caribou antlers can weigh 30 to 40 pounds each. Moose can sometimes weigh more, just because theirs are more of a cupped bowl, but a big bull caribou can have some really heavy antlers.

What do reindeer antlers feel like?

[00:10:58] Dr. Lancellotti: That actually brings me to our next question, which is from Maya, who is five years-old in Los Angeles.

[00:11:06] Maya: What do reindeer antlers feel like and their body feel like? 

[00:11:12] Dr. Lancellotti: Maya wants to know what do reindeer antlers feel like?

[00:11:16] Dr. Link: Their antlers are actually made a bone and that bone grows in the spring time and through the summer. During that time, it’s very sensitive. It has a felt coating that we call velvet and that velvet has a lot of blood vessels as those bones grow. They grow them in an entire season until the fall where they’ll actually start to rub and pull that velvet off as they get hardened and turned from cartilage into actual bone. In the fall, when they’re moving around, they can both use them for defense, but also to assert who the head honcho is. Interestingly enough, both male and female reindeer actually have antlers and will grow them year round. No other deer species do the females regularly grow antlers at the same time. Male caribou will typically start to shed their antlers, just like deer right around now- from December into January. Whereas, females will start to shed around the same time, except if they’re pregnant. One of the ways we know they’re pregnant is if they don’t shed their antlers, because they’ll actually retain them until right after they give birth. Interestingly enough, some of Santa’s reindeer might actually be female. 

[00:12:30] Dr. Lancellotti: That must be some sort of defense mechanism for them, as well. If you say that they’re very defensive of their babies, maybe that’s a way for them to protect themselves while they’re pregnant.

[00:12:41] Dr. Link: Absolutely. They use them amongst themselves, but we also have a lot of dangerous animals up here, and they keep them safe all winter long. 

How do reindeer stay in good shape?

[00:12:49] Dr. Lancellotti: What are some other things that reindeer can do to stay healthy and to stay in good shape? What types of things do they need to take care of their bodies?

[00:12:59] Dr. Link: A lot of that actually starts in the early to mid summer. A lot of these sub-arctic and Arctic species work really hard in the summer to put on as much weight as they can. They get as much nutrients and food (as possible). Everything is very plentiful because the sun is up all day long. Plants can grow all day and then the reindeer and caribou can eat and eat. They actually put on a large amount of weight in the summertime, so that when the cold winter comes, they have a nice layer of fat buildup and they can actually go through the entire winter. Interestingly enough, caribou have the largest migration of any terrestrial mammal of any species. Out of any animal that walks on the ground with four legs, they have the largest migration. So they’ll move from one area to another, in the winter months, depending on where their actual food is. 

[00:13:48] Dr. Lancellotti: So they cover a lot of ground. They’re looking for a lot of different things to get themselves nice and plump for those cold months. 

[00:13:54] Dr. Link: Absolutely.

What are reindeers' favorite foods?

[00:13:56] Dr. Lancellotti: What are some of their favorite foods, would you say? 

[00:14:00] Dr. Link: Caribou and reindeer’s favorite food, above anything else, is actually lichen. Lichen is like a moss. It grows really low to the ground, and a lot of times, reindeer and caribou will spend a good portion of the winter actually scratching at the ground, in the snow, to uncover it. It’s actually still just as nutritious in the wintertime, as it is in the summer. It’s much harder to get, but that’s probably their favorite treat. Since we keep them in smaller pens, and they can’t graze for hundreds of miles in every direction, a lot of them like hay, just like horses. But we also feed them a grain ration, which is really nutrient-rich- which a lot of reindeer in this area are on through the winter months. 

[00:14:40] Dr. Lancellotti: I had another listener question regarding things that reindeer eat from Charlotte in Los Angeles.

[00:14:47] Charlotte: I want to know if reindeer get sick from eating these kinds of berries.

[00:14:55] Dr. Lancellotti: So, Charlotte wants to know if reindeer get sick if they eat holly berries.

[00:15:01] Dr. Link: That’s a great question. I’m not sure if we have holly berries here in Alaska.

[00:15:08] Dr. Lancellotti: So it’s something we don’t really have to worry about as far as whether or not they eat them.

[00:15:13] Dr. Link: Actually, that brings up a great point. We have a ton of cranberries and blueberries here in Alaska. Reindeer, definitely in the late summer to early fall, are known to eat a lot of those kinds of berries on the ground, which is a big nutrient boost for them.

Can Reindeer Fly?

[00:15:30] Dr. Lancellotti: Excellent. Mackenzie, from Pasadena, has an important question that I think is everyone’s mind here. 

[00:15:39] Mackenzie: Can reindeer fly? 

[00:15:45] Dr. Link: That is a great question, Mackenzie. Yes. Reindeer can fly. They take a lot of training and effort to learn to fly. Just like the sled dogs here, they have to practice a lot. 

[00:15:55] Dr. Lancellotti: Very cool. Very important skill for those reindeer to learn. 

What research is being done at the Large Animal Research Station?

Dr. Lancellotti: Hey, I wanted to ask you. What sort of research is being done at the facilities? What are some of the research projects that you guys are working on?

[00:16:10] Dr. Link: Historically, a lot of the research was done on metabolism and physiology of just keeping them going, because they just required so much turnover and so much effort. We actually have a couple (bovine) steers out at the research facility that are incredibly hard to take care of. When I worked there, probably 30% of our time was spent on 4 steers. A lot of it was based on why these animals are able to survive so readily and easily. The muskox metabolic rate drops to (I think it’s) less than 10% in the winter months. And the reindeer do too. They actually go through these huge didactic trends, from summer to winter, on how much they’re taking in. Now, one of the studies that they were doing while I was there, was actually amongst the males. For the male portion of the population, their life span is about half that of females. Most of that’s attributed to fighting wounds, sparring issues, etc. But also males, when they go into the rut, will completely stop eating, expend huge, exorbitant amounts of energy and become totally aggressive. A male caribou or reindeer, while they’re in full velvet, you can approach. You can be close, too. But once they go into a rut, they’re are lethal animal. 

What types of games do reindeer play?

[00:17:22] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s very interesting. I did have one more question. This one actually comes (not from one of the kids that listens, but) from my husband. He wanted to know if there are any particular ‘reindeer games’ that they enjoy playing. 

[00:17:39] Dr. Link: Yeah! Reindeer are actually very social creatures. Reindeer actually play amongst themselves all the time, and it’s always a really exciting time in the springtime, because when the calves start to come, everybody gets super excited. They run and play and even the adults will join in. They are a very social species. They are definitely a herd mentality and they form small social groups within that. But it’s always super fun when the calves come around, because everyone becomes very jovial. Everybody is running around and having fun. 

[00:18:11] Dr. Lancellotti: Awesome. I just imagine that being so fun to watch. I think it would just put a huge smile on my face, seeing a bunch of reindeer and reindeer calves running around and playing outside. That just sounds fantastic. What a cool place Alaska is. 

Why do reindeer hooves click?

Dr. Lancellotti: Dr. Link, do you have any other fun facts or cool stories about reindeer that you’d like to share with our listeners, today?

[00:18:36] Dr. Link: Yeah. One of the really cool things that we often hear about Santa’s reindeer is the click-clack of them on the roof, which is based on fact. Reindeer and caribou have an extra tendon in their toes. When they walk, and you’ll hear a click- click with each one. Each leg actually has a click to it. We’re not quite sure why (the extra tendon is there), but Santa’s reindeer do click clack, just like regular caribou and reindeer too. It’s pretty fascinating. 

[00:19:03] Dr. Lancellotti: So, there you have it. Just take a listen as you’re lying in bed on December 24th, waiting to see what happens on Christmas morning. You might be able to hear that click- clack of Santa’s reindeer. Dr. Link, thank you so much for coming on and talking with us about reindeer and caribou, today. I think this was really fun and I am so excited to share this episode with all of the little kids out there who might be interested in learning more about reindeer health and exactly what reindeer are- especially, my little girl. I’m sure she’s going to love hearing all of these cool facts about reindeer.

[00:19:43] Dr. Link: Thank you so much for having me. 

[00:19:45] Dr. Lancellotti: If you have more questions, please feel free to follow us on Facebook or Instagram and reach out to us there. We’ll have some cool things regarding reindeer to go with the episode, today. Dr. Link, thank you so much and Happy Holidays to you. 

[00:20:16] Dr. Link: Happy Holidays! 

[00:20:17] Dr. Lancellotti: For everyone listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.

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