Devastating Deer Disease

By: Erin Tate
By: Erin Tate

Results of tests done this fall won't be available until mid-December, but biologists are already predicting the disease hasn't hit our state yet.

Al Bourgeois, of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says, "We haven't had to worry before. It was a western disease. Now it's in Wisconsin and people and agencies are saying we need to check."

Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD, has biologists buzzing this fall. They're testing one thousand Virginian deer for this neurological disorder.

"We are taking precautions because it's a devastating disease for our wild deer population," says Bourgeois.

The disease has been around since the late seventies and confined to captive deer in the West. But now, fear of its spread has led to tougher deer herding laws in Virginia.

"The animal will stop eating. That's why it's called Waste Disease. In the end, the rib cage will be showing and they won't fear humans. They won't act properly," says Bourgeois.

If hunters spot a deer with these symptoms, they shouldn't kill it. Instead, they should report that animal to their local game warden. And they should use rubber gloves when handling their kills to prevent the spread of disease.

CWD in a deer cannot be cooked away, but there's no evidence it's dangerous to humans. And it's very rare.

"It's very low. With most wildlife diseases, you're looking at 5 percent or less of the population. It's not very much," says Bourgeois.

Bourgeois says there's no evidence yet that hunters here should worry this holiday. Game wardens say deer, bird and bear populations are all healthy this year. But they will continue to monitor for diseases just in case.

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Chronic Wasting Disease

  • To date, chronic wasting disease has been found only in members of the deer family in North America. Animals include: Rocky Mountain Elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and black-tailed deer.

  • There is ongoing research to explore the possibility of transmission of chronic wasting disease to other species.

Clinical Signs

  • Most cases of chronic wasting disease occur in adult animals.

  • The disease is progressive and always fatal.

  • The most obvious and consistent clinical sign of chronic wasting disease is weight loss over time.

  • Behavioral changes also occur in the majority of cases, including decreased interactions with other animals.

What Causes chronic wasting disease?

  • The agent responsible for chronic wasting disease has not been completely characterized.

  • There are three main theories on the nature of the agent that causes chronic wasting disease:
    • The agent is a prion, an abnormal form of a normal protein, known as cellular prion protein, most commonly found in the central nervous system.

    • The agent is an unconventional virus.

    • The agent is a virino, or "incomplete" virus composed of nucleic acid protected by host proteins. The chronic wasting disease agent is smaller than most viral particles and does not evoke any detectable immune response or inflammatory reaction in the host animal.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture contributed to this report.


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