My first in-person experience with dead deer was when I was a kid and saw a few does hung up on a meat pole with their throats slit. I asked why their throats were cut, and I was told: “to bleed them.” I didn’t start hunting until much later in life, so I just tucked the whole experience away in my memory banks.
But recently, I’ve been working in a family-operated meat processing facility. Every animal that comes down the kill chute gets a major artery severed seconds after we put a hole in its brain. This is standard practice in all beef and hog operations for two reasons—a quick, efficient death, and to ensure the highest quality meat.
This practice got me thinking back to those does I saw as a kid. Do you actually need to bleed deer?
In a slaughterhouse setting, bleeding an animal after incapacitating it is standard procedure. Whether it is beef, hog, deer, or elk, if you’re trying to kill it, you want it completely dead as quickly as possible. Anyone that has taken a large game animal knows that death is not always binary; there's quite a bit of gray area between very alive and very dead.
The same applies to commercial operations. Just because an animal has a large hole in its brain doesn't mean it becomes a ragdoll. There are many parts of internal organs still functioning for a brief period of time. The one we’re primarily focused on is the heart.
Because the heart keeps beating after a shot to the head, blood is still flowing for a short time before death. With a quick cut to a major artery or organ within seconds of the incapacitation shot, the heart will work to pump out most of the blood in the animal. Blood is the vehicle that carries oxygen to the brain, so without blood, what's left of the brain ceases to function. This combination of incapacitation and bleeding out is what ensures a quick, humane death.
Equally important is the quality of the meat. Animals that have not been bled properly tend to have darker flesh and blood spots. Blood is generally not considered a highly-desirable flavor. It is rich in iron and minerals, which can be described as metallic-tasting.
In short, most people don’t like the taste of blood in their food. If you're shaking your head right now and thinking “I love a bloody steak!” it's the myoglobin that you like. Liver, for example, is chock full of blood, and there's a reason many people (myself included) don’t love eating large quantities of liver.
Bloody meat is not generally desired in terms of flavor or visual appeal. Additionally, bloody meat doesn’t keep as well as properly bled meat. Excess blood causes meat to degrade faster—it can have a distinct souring aroma to it—because the blood spoils faster than flesh.
In a commercial setting, the process of dealing with death is fine-tuned. In the field, there are a lot more variables at play.
Typically when you kill a deer or any large game animal, you’re using some sort of projectile and aiming for the lungs and heart. What the projectile is doing is causing exsanguination or blood loss. Serious blood loss results in a quick death and an easy-to-follow blood trail (hopefully). Rapid blood loss also means a rapid decrease in blood pressure. This drop in blood pressure is what brings the animal down before it's completely dead. Create a massive wound channel through major arteries, and you'll often see a deer run off full sprint only to collapse within eyesight.
What you are also doing is bleeding the deer out. With the heart still beating, the wound channel allows pressurized blood to rapidly exit the circulatory system. The caveat to this is most of the blood will remain in the body cavity. No matter how easy the blood trail is to follow, the majority of the blood loss is internal.
In almost any typical or ideal scenario, there is no need to bleed the deer. By the time you get to the animal, its heart has stopped beating. Severing arteries after the animal’s heart has stopped will allow some blood to flow out, especially if it is hung up, but that blood is just the little bit that is left in the arteries. Without the heart beating, most of the blood left in the tissue is going to stay there.
Things don't always go as planned when hunting. If your shot is off and strikes a deer in the spine or head, it will most likely immobilize it immediately. The issue with this is that the internal organs and major arteries are intact, so the blood doesn’t have an easy way to exit the system.
A wounded deer requires immediate dispatch, for both ethical and consumptive reasons. A follow-up shot to the heart or lung area will effectively cause the same amount of blood loss as a properly placed first shot if the heart is still beating. Alternatively, puncturing the lungs or heart with a long knife, or severing the carotid arteries is also an option if there is minimal risk to yourself getting that close to a wounded deer.
The carotid arteries are located on both sides of the neck and supply the brain and head with blood. This is arguably the best way to maximize blood loss in a wounded deer if done correctly. But that’s a big if. I’ve seen many hunters cut the throat of the deer, severing the trachea and esophagus, but not the arteries. Pulling this off correctly with a wounded, agitated deer is physically difficult, not very safe, and honestly, it really sucks.
The carotid arteries run along the spine just above the 3 and 9 o'clock position, just under the ears. It sounds a little gruesome, but if you are going to cut an animal's throat, you need to go “ear to ear.”
If you are in a situation where you have to bleed a deer in the field, move it so that the flow of blood does not have to work against gravity. Rotate or position the deer so that the blood can exit on the downhill side of the grade, which maximizes blood loss.
Generally speaking, if you’re taking heart or lung shots, there isn’t much of a reason to bleed a deer. If you put a big hole through the boiler room, you’ve effectively bled the deer as well as you can in the field.
But if you have a wounded deer that needs to be dispatched, or a headshot deer, severing arteries will allow blood to leave the body. There’s a reason bleeding animals is standard practice in a commercial setting, but it’s important to keep in mind that most well-placed shots are already doing the work for you.