I am getting back into hunting. Mainly as a way to more ethically source meat, my dogs love antlers too. I imagine they will love animal pelts/hides as well (which is my worry). I will be hunting elk this year.

My intentions are to tan the hide of the elk I shoot this year, should I be so lucky. I'd like to use the hide as a rug in our house, and I am certain my dogs will try to chew on it at some point, if not eat portions of it. Is there a hair-on tanning method that is pet friendly? It is important to me to make use of as much of the animal as possible, so I'd like to find a way to utilize the hide, but also not hurt my dogs.

Answer: Based on the answer below, I think the principles of brain tanning are likely to result in the safest tanned hide should my dogs eat a piece of it. The primary fat in the brain that is responsible for the tanning process is called lecithin. This is commercially available in a purified form, making it plausible to tan a hide without potentially exposing my dogs to chronic wasting disease (see discussion below). I'll be looking into a methodology that uses purified lecithin, instead of whole brain, for tanning.


The safest answer is to keep your dogs from chewing on the hide... I admit I doubt any dog could withstand the (for them) tasty smell of a freshly tanned hide, but if you want to keep the rug for any amount of time, you absolutely need to tell your dogs in no uncertain terms that this is not food.

Aside from that, the Native Americans traditionally tanned hides using the brain of the same animal, which might play into your philosophy of not wasting any part of the animal. After removing all the flesh from the skin, they mushed up the brain and cooked it with a little bit of water, then rubbed the mush over the skin for several hours to tan it.

Since raw skin and brain are safe for dogs to eat, I have no reason to assume the end product will be unsafe for dogs as long as you don't add any chemicals or plant material during the tanning process. More thoughts about a similar question can be found here.

Skin is composed of several layers of cells, held together by organic components that decompose quickly. Tanning replaces those components either with fat (brain tanning) or with stable components that don't rot (chemical and plant tanning). That chemical tanning is not safe for dogs is a no-brainer. Plant tanning often uses tannin as the tanning agent. Some sources claim tannin is safe for dogs, others claim it causes poisening with feaver, rapid heart rates and seizures.

I strongly suggest you research the traditional Native American or Canadian brain tanning, but that is outside the scope of Pets.SE. Here is an overview over traditional and modern tanning methods.

It's important to note that chronic wasting disease is prevalent in deer and elk, and thus brain tanning using brains from these animals may result in spreading of this disease. While brain tanning is a reasonable option to consider, CWD must be considered in resource selection.

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    Deer, including elk, can be infected with chronic wasting disease, which is a prion disease that infects the brain. Prions are just proteins, and as such, the disease is EXTREMELY difficult to disinfect. If you tan the hides this way, and the deer had CWD, you'll almost certainly be spreading it on the hide and anything you use in the process, and no amount of normal cleaning will get rid of it. That said, at this time, it is not believed that CWD is transmissible to humans or dogs.
    – Kai
    Jul 19 '19 at 15:04
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    @Kai that was my thought too. I am familiar with this disease, and in Colorado most hunters test for this (we have many services). I think brain tanning with the same brain is probably a bad idea due to the possibility for CWD, but I could probably use something like a cow brain from a butcher. I'll look into it. I appreciate your comment on this.
    – Phil_T
    Jul 19 '19 at 16:01
  • @Phil_T When using the brain of a different animal, it should be as close as possible (in size) to the original brain. A famous saying goes: "Any animal has just enough brain to preserve it's hide - dead or alive." Any smaller brain is not enough to tan this hide. I don't know if a bigger one just makes a bigger mess or has any negative effect.
    – Elmy
    Jul 19 '19 at 19:41

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