Hunters: Look for signs of illness in deer

Identifying deer with chronic wasting disease is not always possible by visual observation. There are common signs that may indicate a deer is sick, but it may or may not have chronic wasting disease.

whitetail deer standing in snow
Look for visual signs of body condition and alertness to determine if a deer is healthy.

Chronic wasting disease is a disorder of the neurological system that affects cervids, which are animals that are members of the deer family such as deer, elk and moose. Chronic wasting disease is caused by a prion, or misfolded protein. Prions are mostly found in the brain. Cervids that contract chronic wasting disease may take months or even years before they show symptoms of having the disease. Symptoms can include extreme weight loss, lack of coordination, drooping head and ears, excessive drooling, excessive drinking and excessive urination. Chronic wasting disease is always fatal to infected cervids.

Chronic wasting disease spreads by both direct contact between animals and indirect contact of saliva, urine, feces, blood, carcass parts of an infected animal and contaminated soil or plants. Once the prions are on the landscape, they can stay infectious for years. Unlike viruses, bacteria or fungus, there is no antidote or cure for a prion disease; prions are resistant to denaturation by chemical agents, such as disinfectants, or physical agents, such as incineration.

The disease is not known to affect humans, although the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) both recommend not eating infected cervid meat. Beyond the potential human health risks, chronic wasting disease poses a threat to deer population health and management. Hunting of deer is an important wildlife management tool and has substantial direct (licensing) and indirect (travel, gear, venison processing) impacts on Michigan’s economy.

Identifying deer with chronic wasting disease is not possible by visual observation alone. For a positive identification, the deer’s lymph nodes must be tested in a lab. Common signs that may indicate a deer is sick include poor body condition (e.g., rib, hip and/or back bones showing) and lack of alertness (e.g., do not react to sounds around them). Deer with chronic wasting disease may also have lost their fear of humans. However, deer can be in poor body condition but not be sick if they have recently been lactating or are in an environment with limited access to feed. Or deer may be suffering from a different illness.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has an interactive web tool that uses photos and allows you to test your ability to identify sick deer. While it is best to observe deer over time, that may not be an option for hunters. If possible, observe deer to see whether they put on more weight or remain in poor condition and start exhibiting additional signs of illness.

Hunters play a very important role in controlling the spread of chronic wasting disease by using proper field dressing procedures, following best practices for carcass handling and disposal, and submitting deer lymph nodes for testing if harvesting deer in a chronic wasting disease targeted surveillance area. This area includes southern Jackson County, southern Isabella County, western Gratiot County and the chronic wasting disease core surveillance area in the Upper Peninsula.

Movement restrictions apply to animals harvested in Montcalm County; Otisco, Orleans, Ronald and North Plains Townships in Ionia County; and Nelson, Spencer, Courtland, Oakfield, Grattan and Cannon Townships in Kent County, unless:

  • It is deboned meat, quarters or other parts of a cervid that do not have any part of the spinal column or head attached, antlers, antlers attached to a skull cap cleaned of all brain and muscle tissue, hides, upper canine teeth, or a finished taxidermist mount.

Or…

  • The deer carcass is taken directly to a registered processor.
  • The intact deer head detached from the carcass is taken directly to a licensed taxidermist.

Although it is highly unlikely you will see a free ranging deer that has chronic wasting disease, it is important to know the signs of sick deer. If you do encounter one, contact the Michigan DNR Wildlife Division at 517-284-9453 or the afterhours RAP line that is available 24/7 at 1-800-292-7800. You can also submit a report of a sick deer online.

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