Facts – Chronic Wasting Disease
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a contagious neurological disease of white-tailed deer and other deer species. CWD belongs to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). The disease is caused by a mutated protein called a prion. CWD is always fatal for white-tailed deer.
CWD has been detected in Alabama. Below you will find FAQs to help you better understand CWD and Alabama’s CWD Surveillance and Response Plan.
What is ADCNR doing to respond to the detection of CWD?
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) has monitored for CWD since 2002 and has tested nearly 13,000 free-ranging deer. As positive cases are detected in Alabama, ADCNR will establish a Chronic Wasting Disease Management Zone (CMZ) in the area the disease is discovered. Within the CMZ, steps will be taken to increase CWD sampling rates through hunter harvests by adjusting the season and daily bag limits on antlered and unantlered deer during set hunting seasons.
What wildlife species are affected by CWD?
CWD affects several species in the deer family (cervids). White-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, red deer, moose, sika deer, and reindeer have all been found to be susceptible to the disease.
Can humans get CWD?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports no strong evidence that CWD can infect humans. No case of human disease has been directly linked to CWD.
Use common sense precautions when handling or processing deer harvested from areas with CWD. The CDC recommends not to eat meat from an animal that appears sick and never eat brain, eyeballs, spinal cord, spleen, or lymph nodes from a CWD-susceptible species.
How does CWD spread?
Scientists think CWD spreads between deer through contact with contaminated body fluids and tissue or indirectly through exposure to CWD in the environment. The transportation of live or harvested animals is also a major cause of spreading CWD into new areas. Once CWD is detected in a new area, infected deer serve as a reservoir for prions which will shed into the environment through saliva, urine, blood, soft-antler material and feces. There are no known management strategies to lessen the risk of indirect transmission of CWD once an environment has been contaminated. This makes eradication of CWD very difficult, if not impossible.
What Symptoms can a CWD-positive deer display?
It is difficult to diagnose a deer with CWD based on these symptoms alone since many of these symptoms also occur with other diseases or malnutrition.
As CWD progresses, infected animals may exhibit a variety of changes in behavior and appearance. These may include:
- drastic weight loss (wasting)
- lack of coordination
- excessive thirst or urination
- drooping ears
- lack of fear of people
Does a deer that appears sick have CWD?
No. Diseases such as Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) or a brain abscess can cause similar symptoms as those of CWD. Deer that are old or compromised in other ways may also display the same symptoms. Even a deer that has been hit by a car may exhibit some behaviors associated with CWD. Not every sick deer has CWD.
To report a sick deer, visit the Report a Sick Deer page.
What is the difference between Hemorrhagic Disease and CWD?
Hemorrhagic Disease (HD) is a viral disease that kills some deer in Alabama each year. It is spread only through small, biting midges (gnats). A deer with HD either recovers or dies from the disease within a few days. In Alabama, HD is typically an issue from mid-summer until cold weather eliminates the midges for the year.
CWD is caused by abnormal, pathogenic agents called prions. The disease is spread directly from deer to deer or from a contaminated environment. The transportation of live or harvested animals is also a major cause of spreading CWD into new areas. CWD is always fatal and may take years to kill a deer.
For more information about Wildlife-related diseases, click here.
How is CWD detected?
It is difficult to diagnose CWD based on visual symptoms alone. The only conclusive diagnosis involves a laboratory examination of the brain, tonsils, or lymph nodes performed after death. Currently, there is no U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved, live animal test for CWD. No effective treatment or vaccine for the disease is known.
Why are we concerned about CWD?
CWD can persist in an area indefinitely and continue to spread and infect deer through a contaminated environment. This poses serious problems for wildlife managers and the implications for free-ranging deer are significant. The disease could substantially reduce infected deer populations by lowering adult survival rates.
Where and how did CWD originate?
The first case of CWD was discovered in Colorado in 1967. Over the next 30 years, the disease spread very slowly, only taking in a 15- to 20-county region on the Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming borders. In the late 90s, CWD was detected in Saskatchewan. That incident was traced to live elk from South Dakota that were transported to Canada. CWD continues to spread and now has been found in 28 states and four Canadian provinces. South Korea, Norway, Finland, and Sweden also have detected CWD. South Korea’s CWD-positive animals can be traced back to the live transport of deer from infected areas. Over the past decade, the movement of live cervids or infected carcasses by humans has contributed to the increased spread of the disease.
In 2018 CWD was detected in Mississippi and Tennessee. These positive detections prompted ADCNR to activate its CWD Surveillance and Monitoring Program. The program increased monitoring and testing along the Mississippi and Tennessee borders to detect the disease.
What preventive measures should hunters take?
Hunters should take the following precautions when handling deer harvested from CWD-positive areas:
- Do not handle or consume any deer that was acting abnormally or appeared to be sick.
- Wear latex or rubber gloves when field dressing your deer.
- Do not use household knives or other kitchen utensils for field dressing.
- Bone out the meat from your deer harvest.
- Minimize handling organs from your deer harvest, including the brain and spinal tissue. Do not saw through bone and avoid cutting through the brain, backbone or spinal cord.
- Wash hands thoroughly after field dressing and cleaning your equipment is completed.
- Clean any surface or tools with a bleach-based solution after processing your deer.
- Request that your deer be processed without meat from other deer when commercially processed.
- CDC recommends that you do not eat brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes of harvested deer. Normal field dressing combined with boning out a carcass will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove the remaining lymph nodes.
- CDC recommends that you do not eat met that has tested positive for CWD.
Is the meat safe to eat?
No case of human disease has been directly linked to consuming venison harvested from a CWD-positive area. Currently, there is no U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)-approved, live animal test for CWD. However, individuals should review CDC guidelines concerning the risk associated with consuming venison harvested from those areas.
How do hunters submit samples for CWD testing from deer that will be mounted?
In Alabama, hunters are required to submit heads for CWD testing from all deer harvested within a HRZ. Hunters who harvest deer within the Buffer Zone are highly encouraged to submit heads for CWD testing. Note: Heads, hides, or antlers will not be returned from the drop-off freezer locations.
For deer heads that will be turned into shoulder or full-body mounts, the head should be caped and antlers with skull cap attached should be removed prior to submitting the head for testing at check stations and freezer drop-off locations.
For heads that will be turned into European mounts, hunters should bring their deer head to a check station or WFF office for a sample to be collected. Make sure someone is available at the WFF office who can collect the sample before traveling to the office. For WFF Office contact information, click here.
What can hunters do to help?
Hunters play a critical role in monitoring for this disease. Alabama’s deer herd needs you now more than ever. Hunters are encouraged to continue hunting and provide deer heads for CWD sampling so that ADCNR’s wildlife biologists can understand the prevalence of the disease in the affected areas.
The movement of harvested deer will be limited within the management zone. Deer harvested within the HRZ must remain and be disposed of within the HRZ. Deer harvested within the Buffer Zone must remain and be disposed of within the CMZ. Deboned meat, cleaned skull plates and raw hides with no visible brain or spinal cord tissue may be taken outside of these zones. Transporting deer carcasses out of the management zone can potentially spread CWD to currently unaffected areas.
The following actions are also required:
- Report all white-tailed deer harvests statewide through ADCNR’s Game Check System.
- Follow ADCNR Best Management Practices for Carcass Disposal.
What can the public do to help?
Non-hunters can also assist ADCNR with its CWD monitoring program. Please report the transport of live deer, elk, or other cervids on Alabama's roads and highways by calling Operation Game Watch at 1-800-272-4263. Contacting the ADCNR immediately makes it more likely these animals will be intercepted before they can be released.
The public also can help ADCNR with its monitoring program by reporting any deer that behaves abnormally or appears sick. Again, not all deer that appear sick will have CWD.
If you spot a deer that exhibits signs of CWD, report it in one of the following ways:
- Call an ADCNR Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division office nearest you.
- Call the Operation Game Watch line at 1-800-272-4263.
- Report a sick deer online.
What are other states doing about CWD?
States that have detected CWD within their borders have all enacted monitoring programs for the disease. ADCNR works closely with neighboring states in monitoring and reporting efforts to understand the prevalence of the disease, as well as keeping the public informed about CWD detection, education and outreach.