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Dog ANTLER CHEWS and the Domestic Antler Market

Recently, many in the elk industry have noticed a significant rise in the demand and value of elk hard antlers. Old antler prices prior to 2005, have given way to aggressive pricing ranging over $20 per lb. for the better antler grades. Currently, it is common for ranchers to receive numerous calls, all year long, from antler buyers and even antler consumers seeking recently dropped or cut-off antlers.

This extraordinary demand has been propagated by the creation of an all-natural, antler dog chew market. A market which transformed from a minor use of antlers in the early 2000's to a major, perhaps even the leading market for antlers, one that today consumes literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of both farmed and wild antlers. QT Dog of Dallas, TX, ElkUSA of Del Norte, CO and Dave's Pet City of Boston, MA were instrumental in creating the current antler dog chew market as we see it today.

While the recent antler craze has hit the standard dog chew market by storm, using antler for dog chews is nothing new. Probably, ever since man domesticated the first dog, if an antler was laying around, the dog would have chewed on it. So while cavemen made arrow and spear tips or knives from selected pieces of antler, Gog the dog probably got the chewy antler scraps. So dog antler chews are just a natural phenomenon that has been rediscovered by modern man and his faithful companion.

Basically, a dog antler chew is simply cross-cut, raw, natural hard antler from wild or farmed deer. As defined by the USDA, they are an All-Natural product. Virtually no antler chews can be properly called ORGANIC since they come predominately from fully unsupervised wild animals.

Prior to the antler dog chew craze, hard antlers were generally used for a variety of interesting purposes, of which personal dog chew use was minor. Here in the States, antlers were generally divided up into three groups, those for craft purposes and those for food purposes and trash antlers of little or no value. Food purposes now includes the use as antler dog chews.

The highest and best use of any hard antler has been, and still is, craft antler. Only about 10% or 15% of all antlers are suitable for craft uses. These antlers are usually nicely-formed, eye-pleasing, and sometimes well-matched sets of antlers, recently dropped or well-preserved, that can be used for various craft purposes. Shades of brown and/or cream color are the usual colors, although local foliage may affect the color scheme and color density. The value of the best craft antlers exceeds the value of dog chew antler at the farm level.

Craft products range from fancy chandeliers down to simple knife handles, and cover the full gamut of home furnishings, from hand-crafted furniture to banister railings, down to door knobs and cupboard handles. Particularly large sets may be used for the typical North American stuffed head mounts and/or European rack mounts. As such, craft antler is the first and most sought after form of antler and brings the highest price. Antler chews are generally not made directly from craft antler, but can be gleaned from craft antler leftovers.

Food antlers make up the bulk of all antler collected. These are antlers that are broken, not matched sets, have funny shapes, are older, or are generally just not useful for craft purposes. Formerly, the vast majority of North American food antlers are shipped overseas to Asian nations as raw antler prized for its various medicinal properties, not only as soft velvet antler but as hard antler as well. A great source of calcium and magnesium and phosphorous, Asian cultures use hard antler like American's use calcium supplements.

The same grading characteristics of Asian food antlers can be used for antler chews. In 2005, ElkUSA modified the original Asian grading routine of three food categories, up to four categories so as to better grade hard antlers to determine suitability for food OR antler dog chews. The four new categories are: 1) #1 or HARD BROWN, 2) #2 or HARD WHITE, 3) #3 or CRACKED WHITE, and 4) #4 CHALKS. Grading simply reflects Asian pricing for food and nutrition efficacy which decreases from Brown #1's down to Chalks #4's.

The species of deer can have a significant bearing on the grade of the antler due to the size and thickness of the antler. A smaller diameter antler from a smaller deer species means a quicker natural dry down, quicker texture deterioration, and a potentially less suitable dog chew, though will vary considerably with the deer species. For example, thinner Whitetail antler generally makes rather hard dog chews turning to chalk quicker than elk, while say, caribou is usually less dense, hence, a nice soft antler chew, but one that can deteriorate in the sun even faster.

A description of antler grade will help you to classify and value antler prior to a buyer showing up.

HARD BROWN, also know as #1 grade, are the recent antler drops usually of elk that have a noticeable and sometimes pronounced brown color. All deer love to rub the velvet antler stage off their antlers by thrashing bushes and rubbing on tree branches and trunks. The scrapped-off vegetable matter tints the antler. The brown color is due to oxidized chlorophyll which stains the antlers initially a green color, but with time will oxidize the iron to a brown color (kind of like the rusting process or Fall leaves turning yellow then brown). Tree sap can turn antlers almost black. Brown antler rowns have the highest moisture content and the most pleasing color, plus intact blood proteins, and are highly valued in Asian circles. As for dog chews, they have the most attractive aroma to your dog, but are a bit softer due to the moisture content. For dogs, softer means a bit quicker chew time and the need to replace it sooner. Fresh drops or cutoffs are extra special to dogs because of the fresh blood drip and smell, but can be problematic for consumers, especially the ones with white carpets.

Cream-colored, fresh, farmed animal antlers (those animals generally have no trees or bushes to attack and get sun bleached faster) are Farmed Browns and usually bring a bit lower but still prime Brown price.

HARD WHITES, also know as or #2 grade, are the most common food antlers from farmed animal antlers stored for long periods, or from natural dropped wild antlers that have been partially bleached by exposure to the sun. Sun-bleaching is simply the natural process whereby an antler is shed from the animal and lays out in the sun, becoming lighter in color until found by a human or consumed by the forest critters. This equates to your hair turning blonde as you sunbathe at the beach. Often, an antler shed after several months in the sun, can be brown on the down side and sun-bleached white on the upper side. Usually these antlers are more than one or two years old, and have some moisture loss correlating with the color loss, hence will be a bit harder and longer lasting as antler dog chews, but not quite as aromatic to the dog. Soaking in water, or a quick, damp microwave can make these pieces just as aromatic as the Browns, but at the risk of making them softer and chewed faster by the dog.

CRACKED WHITE, also know as #3 grade, are antlers that have had a long period (several seasons) of sun or dry wind exposure and have lost enough moisture to allowing cracking between the crystalline structure of the antler. Again one side maybe brown on the bottom, but cracked and white on the upper side reflecting the sun's drying ability. These antler chews are lighter in color and in weight, but still contain all the useful minerals and nutrition, just more dried out. (like jerky!). Since a significant portion of the moisture has evaporated, the consumer is buying more minerals and nutrients per pound and not paying for the water. One is sacrificing doggy aroma, but get a longer lasting dog chew since the dog saliva will slowly re-hydrate the outer portion of the antler dog chew. Long soaking or a microwave can somewhat rejuvenate a cracked antler as to softness and aroma, but might be difficult. As antler ages, the likelihood of splintering when chewed becomes a problem to watch out for. Splintering antler has no place in the the chew business. Value varies considerably on quality.

Lastly, CHALKY antlers, aka chalks or #4 grade, have been baked in the sun or in hot dry wind for many years. These antlers have a gritty feel and will easily scratch off a white powder which is simply calcium carbonate with lesser manganese and phosphorus minerals. While used in Asia for ground calcium supplements and here for decoration, chalks have low value as dog chews due to a lack of aroma, a chalky, gritty feel and the relative inability to re-hydrate them. A chalky dog antler chew will more easily crumble, splinter or be rapidly destroyed by a dog, that is, if he even plays with it. Value is again highly variable pending quality. The lowest grade chalks are simply trash for decoration or disposal.

Most antler dog chew purveyors utilize the first three grades of antlers. Hard Brown due to the fresh aroma, Hard White due to its long-lasting ability and Cracked White for the longest lasting chew at the most economical price. A few, however, do use Chalks, which seem to be a sub-standard product.

In many cases elk farmers cut antlers off early to as to minimize the stabbing risk to themselves and other animals. Soft and tasty to your dog is a good description of these early stage unusual antlers. However, they are very rich in blood nutrients, and are easily consumed to excess. As such, they can cause doggy digestive problems if unsupervised.

Conclusively, the dog antler chew business is an excellent example of building a new, viable commercial market from under-utilized raw materials. Elk and deer have several more possible commercial products awaiting the development of a new market. For instance, while getting a human cautioned by western medicine to try antler velvet can be difficult, a dog don't care. Dogs just go for it! So, strategically, the future of elk by-products may lie with pets rather than with people.

Rich Forrest

Grande Natural Companies (ElkUSA)

*The medicinal benefits of antler dog chews offered in this article has not been verified by the FDA and is not offered as a cure nor remedy to canine afflictions. Nor is the above information offered as any veterinary advice or procedure. Always consult with your veterinary professional. The above antler chew presentation is offered thru scientific inference based upon human tests, as well as, various anecdotal evidence.





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