Recently, a traditional Chinese medicine used to promote joint health in people and pets became the center of a well-publicized sports controversy. Deer antler, the substance in question, is the subject of the pre-Super Bowl scandal involving Baltimore Ravens (that’s football, FYI) player Ray Lewis.

According to Sports Illustrated, while Lewis was recovering from a torn triceps muscle in October he contacted S.W.A.T.S (Sports With Alternative to Steroids) to purchase their products, including their “deer antler spray.” S.W.A.T.S’s The Ultimate Spray is the only liquid product containing deer antler listed on the company’s website, so it may be safe to assume that it is the “deer antler spray” (to be applied under the tongue) in question.

The company’s website claims:

S.W.A.T.S Ultimate Spray is an all-natural product extracted from the velvet from the immature antlers of male deer. The deer are sedated and treated humanely during the process. It is standard practice for deer farmers to remove the antlers to protect all deer and staff from injury and provide a save working environment. This product has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. Modern research has indicated a number of beneficial effects including:

  • Stimulation of the body’s immune system.
  • Anti-Inflammatory activity for pain and inflammatory diseases.
  • Anabolic or growth stimulation
  • Repair of muscle damage following exercise
  • Muscular strength and endurance
  • Athletic performance
  • Alleviation of anemia
  • Anti-aging effects
  • Anti-cancer and anti-oxidant

Deer antler contains Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) report on the substance indicates that “the protein encoded by this gene is similar to insulin in function and structure and is a member of a family of proteins involved in mediating growth and development.” Therefore, consumption of deer antler based nutraceuticals (food products providing medicinal benefits) could promote tissue health beyond the body’s inherent abilities. Use of a product containing IGF-1 is in violation with current NFL Players Association Banned Substances policy.

Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne clarified that “the team knew about this report. Ray (Lewis) denies taking anything and has always passed tests.” Ravens coach John Harbaugh also showed no concern about Lewis’s alleged use of deer antler or other substances and stated that “Ray has passed every test for substance abuse that he’s taken throughout his entire career.” Upon direct inquiry about his use of “deer antler spray” during recovery from his injury, Lewis stated, “Nah, never.”

So, we may never know if Lewis consumed the product, yet his reported link to S.W.A.T.S. generates suspicion. Lewis isn’t exactly the poster child for law-abiding behavior, as he pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case of two men after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta, GA in 2000.

Why am I writing about deer antler, IGF-1, and Ray Lewis in the first place? Two of my house call clients inspired me, as within the span of a few hours on a single day, they brought up the media’s recent focus on the deer antler issue. One of these clients’ dogs takes NatraFLEX Superflex Pet Formula as part of her multimodal pain management protocol. This product contains velvet deer antler powder, chondroprotectants (substances touted to promote cartilage health, like glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate), and other ingredients.

For complete disclosure, I did not recommend this product to my client, nor do I have a business relationship with NatraFLEX. However, my 70 pound, senior, Labradoodle patient having arthritis (joint inflammation), degenerative joint disease (DJD, the progression of arthritis), and a history of cranial cruciate ligament surgery has needed only minimal non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other pain relieving medications (synthetic opiates, like Tramadol) to keep her comfortable, mobile, and leading an excellent quality of life. We manage her conditions with this combination:

  • Daily fish oil based omega-3 fatty acid supplements
  • Daily oral and every three week injectable chondroprotectants (Superflex and Novartis Adequan Canine, respectively)
  • Healthy weight management through a whole food based diet and frequent controlled leash walks
  • Acupressure massage and needle/laser acupuncture treatment

I am fine with my patients taking a supplement containing deer antler provided the collection process is humanely performed and the product does not contain other substances that conceivably could be harmful when taken on a short or long-term basis, as nutraceuticals are meant to be taken over a period of weeks, months, and even years.

So, my patients that are consuming dear antler (either as a supplement or chew toy) will just have to concede their dreams of competing in major league football. I wonder if IGF-1 is banned for the canine athletes of Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl? Perhaps Marta, Puppy Bowl IX’s MVP, should undergo some diagnostic testing to make sure she’s clean.

Dr. Patrick Mahaney

Image: Antler Bone Dog Chew (Not affiliated with products mentioned in this post — just a great picture.)