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Chronic Wasting Disease - What Hunters Need to Know

Nov 28, 2007
Before heading for the woods to pursue a prize deer or elk, it is important to become familiar with a contagious neurological disease that may affect the animals you are tracking. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) attacks small portions of the deer and elk population found in various states within the U.S. Once an animal becomes infected with the disease, the brain suffers a distinctive spongy deterioration. As a result, infected animals suffer an assortment of symptoms, including the loss of their bodily functions.

Scientists and hunters have been aware of Chronic Wasting Disease for more than 30 years, as it has been known to strike free-ranging populations of mule deer in the past. Today, only four species belonging to the family Cervidae have shown a natural susceptibility to the disease. They are the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and moose (Alces alces). The exact origin of the disease is unknown and researchers may never learn how and when CWD first made its mark.

CWD-Infected Regions

It was a quite a long time before researchers learned that the disease stretched beyond their previous belief that CWD only affected wild animals in small locations about northeastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska, and southeastern Wyoming. To date, Chronic Wasting Disease is now found in wild deer roaming about northern Illinois, central New Mexico, Kansas, Saskatchewan, southern Wisconsin, central New York, West Virginia, and Utah. Moose in Colorado have also tested positive for the disease.

Additionally, commercial gaming farms located in Colorado, New York, Kansas, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota, Saskatchewan, and Alberta have also produced CWD-infected animals.

How to Pinpoint Chronic Wasting Disease

One of the most glaring symptoms of deer and elk infected with the disease is the loss of body condition. Significant changes in behavior also arise. Infected animals may walk in a repetitive manner; display lowered head and ears; may illustrate a wide-based stance or showcase subtle ataxia (uncoordinated muscle movement); and exhibit slight head tremors. Infected deer usually dwell about water sources or riparian regions (wetlands, woodlands, and grasslands with surface water).

Despite their dwindling appearance, infected animals still continue to eat, but consume smaller amounts of food. As they near the terminal stage of the disease, they will drink a lot of water, frequently urinate, excessively drool, and salivate, which often causes the hairs located on their chin and neck to appear wet. Once clinical disease sets in, death is an inevitable outcome.

Tips for Hunters

Public health and wildlife officials do not discourage hunting in regions where deer and elk may have been exposed to CWD, yet stress the importance of exercising caution. This includes:

- Wearing latex or rubber gloves when field dressing a catch.

- Avoiding the shooting, handling, or consumption of any animal that looks sick or is acting out of the ordinary. For instance, a healthy elk will not come in close contact with a human.

- Do not saw through the bone of an elk or deer instead bone out the meat of the animal. Make sure to avoid cutting into the brain or backbone (spinal cord).

- Exercise minimal handling of the spinal tissues and brain.

- After completing the field dressing process, always wash your hands and equipment.

- To avoid consuming infected meat, make sure to stay away from the following parts of the animal: spleen, eyes, brain, spinal cord, tonsils, and lymph nodes. To remove remaining lymph nodes that may carry the disease, make sure to cut away all fatty tissue.

- If you rely on commercially processed deer or elk, make sure that your animal is processed on an individual basis to avoid the addition of contaminated meat from other animals.

- When an animal tests positive for CWD, properly discard the meat.

To make sure that an animal you have killed is not infected with Chronic Wasting Disease, testing of tissues is highly recommended. The initial step of testing involves screening (named ELISA), which quickly detects abnormal proteins in animal tissue that takes between four to six hours for results. If abnormal protein is detected, another test known as the immunohistochemistry (IHC) process is conducted, which usually analyzes tissue samples taken from the brain, tonsils, and lymph nodes of an animal.

Following the above tips are suggested in order to successfully avoid the rare possibility that a neurological disease may develop as a result. To date, not enough evidence has surfaced to prove that CWD-infected meat possesses fatal consequences.
About the Author
Scott Peters is an avid deer hunter, outdoorsman and rifle scope retailer. For more information on scopes please go to Leupold Rifle Scopes.
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