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What to Know About Chronic Wasting Disease

21st Jan 2015

chronic wasting disease

About Chronic Wasting Disease

First identified in the 1960s at a Colorado research facility, Chronic wasting disease is an illness affects animals like white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and mule deer. It is considered a fatal disease that, if contracted, will attack the brain and spinal cord of the animal. Though the exact cause isn’t known, CWD is considered to be a prion disease – which means once a protein is altered (called a prion), other normal proteins will change and lead to the destruction of the brain via holes.


While CWD can’t be transmitted to humans, it’s still advised that you stay away from any deer that may have it. In the early stages of CWD, deer don’t always show signs of having it. As the disease progresses, signs of weight loss and behavioral changes can be seen. After that, deer may drool excessively, stumble, tremble, urinate excessively, over-drink, be extremely nervous or (just the opposite) be unafraid of humans.

How It Spreads

CWD is spread between deer, elk, and moose via urine, feces, or even saliva. You’ll usually find more deer are affected in areas with large deer populations or feeding areas, where saliva is present. Despite the common assumption that a female affected with CWD would pass the disease onto her baby, this doesn’t seem to be the case, and CWD has remained in the deer family since it was identified.

Where It’s Present

Right now, CWD has been found in 18 U.S. states, though more prevalent in some than others. Western states like Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Wisconsin, and Wyoming have been documented with more cases of CWD than the other 13 states (Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia).

How to Isolate It

The Maryland state website suggests that if you’re a hunter, some precautionary measures should be taken when handling, field-dressing, and home processing venison:

  • Avoid shooting or handling a deer that appears sick.
  • Wear latex or rubber gloves when field-dressing or butchering deer.
  • Remove all internal organs.
  • Bone the deer (remove the meat from the bones and spinal column).
  • Do not use household knives or utensils.
  • Avoid cutting through bones or the spinal column (backbone).
  • Never eat a deer’s brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen, or lymph nodes.
  • If you saw off antlers or through a bone, or if you sever the spinal column with a knife, be sure to disinfect these tools prior to using them for the butchering or removal of meat.
  • Remove all fat, membranes and connective tissue from the meat. Note that normal field-dressing and trimming of fat from meat will remove lymph nodes.
  • Always wash hands and instruments thoroughly after dressing and processing game meat.
  • Use a 50/50 solution of household chlorine bleach and water to disinfect tools and work surfaces.
  • Wipe down counters and let them dry; soak knives for one hour.

If you’re not a hunter and you see a deer that looks infected, contact your local Department of Natural Resources. Maryland’s can be reached at 1-(877) 620-8367 (ext. 8540).

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