We examined the concentration of urinary cortisol and urea nitrogen of five hand-reared mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) fawns that failed to recover from winter starvation, and compared them to levels found in fawns that recovered. The fawns wintered in fenced pastures stocked with wild deer, and were put back on supplemental feed after losing 15% of their body mass. The five fawns that died began receiving supplemental feed up to 3 wk before death. All continued to lose weight, and were consequently removed from the pasture and fed ad libitum 4 to 10 days before death. In the animals that died, cortisol levels continued to increase regardless of food availability, and were correlated with those of urea nitrogen. Postmortem cortisol and urea nitrogen measurements were significantly greater than concentrations found in the weeks preceding death. We hypothesize that uncontrolled protein catabolism is promoted by high levels of cortisol. These cortisol levels may reach a point at which irreversible multiple-system organ failure occurs, leading to the animal's death.
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Vol. 27 • No. 1