3 Reasons Deer Attack People

June 26, 2024 By: Matt Ross

No matter your age, race or upbringing, the cast of beastly characters that headline our nightmares typically involves sharp teeth, claws or an overall slimy, creepy-crawly “ick factor.” Cute and cuddly are never traits conjured up during those wee hours of vulnerability. However, despite how horrifying (or newsworthy) a shark, bear, or snake attack may seem, those kinds of human-animal interactions are downright rare. 

Believe it or not, deer are consistently ranked as one of the deadliest animals in the United States – but not in the way you may think! It’s their run-ins on the roads that make Bambi responsible for 96% of Americans killed in physical confrontations with wildlife annually. Still I’m guessing what brought you to this page is to learn, why, when or where you may expect a different kind of confrontation. Deer attack people very rarely, but when it happens, it is usually for one of three reasons.

Sick or Injured Deer

Deer are prey animals, so pretty much everything is out to get them. Including us. We’ve evolved together, with deer taking the lead role of table fare for humans for eons, so you are certainly perceived as a threat under most normal circumstances. One study found deer fear the sound of human voices more than the howls of wolves or coyotes. However, when an individual deer is sick or injured, humans may be seen as an elevated risk looking to capitalize on their weakened state, and thus if you get too close to a deer that is ill or recently sustained a traumatic event, it could attack. When animals lack other means to confidently defend themselves, they’re likely to behave far more aggressively than usual.

This buck became entangled in a backyard rope swing. Otherwise it likely would not have come near the people who rescued it. Screen image from a Fox 32 Chicago video.

Most wounded deer will flee. Of course, any deer that feels trapped could lash out, but this is unlikely in most free-ranging environments where escape is possible, even when injury is involved. In fact new hunters are often taught how to properly approach downed game during hunter safety instruction, just in case. The more likely scenario that could prompt an attack is a deer caught in a fence or some other type of obstruction. If you are in this situation and want to help, just be forewarned that the deer could turn on you. A better decision is to call your local game warden. 

Rabies is a commonly known illness that probably comes to mind when visualizing an unprovoked attack by any animal. Rabies is a fatal but preventable viral disease that infects the central nervous system. It can spread to people and pets if bitten or scratched by a rabid mammal. In the United States, rabies is mostly found in bats, raccoons, skunks, and foxes, but seldom in deer. From 2000 to 2021, only nine white-tailed deer were diagnosed with rabies by the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, and during the 20-year span prior to 2010 a grand total of 104 rabid deer were reported in the entire country. So, on average, less than five cases are diagnosed per year in the United States.

Other ailments like brain abscesses, EHD or even chronic wasting disease are even less likely to result in an attack if encountered, because these sicknesses all cause deer to become listless and generally unaware of their surroundings. Still, approach any strange-acting deer with caution, and always call your state wildlife agency immediately to report sightings of sick deer.

Tame Deer

Deer are hardwired to be afraid of humans, but we can reduce that instinct enough that when interacting with tame deer, you may be presented with risks and should be prepared to respond. That is because no matter how much effort is put into easing their fear of humans, even after 100 generations removed from a pure wild individual, total domestication of deer is basically impossible. Ask anyone who has been around captive deer or elk. 

The moment before a deer charged and gored this man, who had been trying to scare the wild but tame animal away by swatting it with a broom. Screen image from a Newsweek video.

When I was in graduate school, I had the great fortune to help manage our university’s wildlife research facility, which housed several dozen deer. It was an amazing experience that contributed greatly to both my professional and personal development – especially as an aspiring biologist and avid deer hunter. However, every study animal we worked with had to be habituated as much as possible to humans, and we did that by only keeping deer that had been raised by bottle-feeding. Even then, it was dangerous to be in the pens alone with deer. I personally faced some minor altercations with a few of the research deer, and one of my fellow graduate students got chased up a tree by one ornery buck and was stuck there for hours until others arrived.

Obviously, the majority of North American deer are wild, but the places you may have a run-in with a tame or semi-tame individual that’s liable to attack are in highly suburban communities, parks or other refuges that haven’t allowed any form of hunting for some time. 

During the filming of a Kentucky Afield segment at the Salato Wildlife Education Center, a mature buck became aggressive and attacked host Dave Shuffett, Biologist Lauren Schaaf, and KDFWR employee Johnny Widener.  The deer was secured with the help of several other employees. Tame bucks can become aggressive toward people especially as testosterone levels rise near the rut. Screen image from a Kentucky Afield video.

Deer Protecting their Young

Probably the most likely situation that would elicit an attack by a deer, or most wild animals for that matter, is getting between a mother and its offspring. Deer, elk, and moose can all be aggressive toward anything they perceive as a threat to their calves or fawns. She does this, of course, to protect her reproductive investment. In fact, beyond the willingness to defend against a potential fawn predator, a doe’s instincts are to do whatever is necessary to ensure survival of their young. 

This deer was defending an area from hikers during fawning season. Shortly after the hikers saw a fawn, the doe charged their dog and circled them for several minutes. Does are very protective of newborn fawns. Rarely they can become aggressive toward people and pets near their fawns.

Most fawns are born during May and June, thus most news reports about this sort of interaction occur in the late spring or early summer. So be mindful of that timing and avoid knowingly getting too close to adult does during these months. 

Pregnant females don’t want any company just prior to and immediately after giving birth. Each doe becomes an extreme loner around this time, even to the point they don’t tolerate the presence of other deer. This is the only behavior where deer can be labeled as being truly territorial. Bonding with her progeny is required for survival, and that takes time. Excessive disturbance can lead to a breakdown of this bond and may result in the death of the fawn. Be sure to respect the much-needed alone time that every mother requires. 

Rare Exceptions

It’s important to recognize that deer don’t inherently attack humans. Sure, bucks can cause a hurting with their antlers, which is part of their purpose to begin with. And all deer have the ability to stand on their hind legs and pummel their opponent better than Muhammad Ali. But the circumstances described above are exceedingly rare. Especially considering how widespread and abundant deer are, as well as their proximity to where people live.

If you live or spend a lot of time where deer are, simply be aware of your surroundings and use a little common sense. Deer are wild animals, after all.

Most of the recorded deer attack incidents occur in areas where deer have lost their natural fear of humans, such as in suburban areas and parks that are not hunted. However, even in these locations it rarely happens.

About Matt Ross:

Matt Ross of Saratoga Springs, New York, is a certified wildlife biologist and licensed forester and NDA's Director of Conservation. He received his bachelor's in wildlife conservation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and his master's in wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire. Before joining the NDA staff, Matt worked for a natural resource consulting firm in southern New Hampshire, and he was an NDA volunteer and Branch officer. He and his wife Sadie have two daughters, Josephine and Sabrina.