What’s going on with those dead deer?

Within the past several weeks, I have found two dead whitetail deer on my farm. They were both pretty young and both were in or near water when I found them.   

We have a lot of deer here and while I don’t deer hunt, we have plenty of folks from around the country coming here to hunt, so there is reason to be concerned.

It occurred to me, as I found these cadavers and was wondering what caused these deaths, that I actually know very little about the two primary diseases that are killing deer here in the Midwest, namely Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and Epizootic Hemorrhage Disease (EHD), also sometimes referred to as Blue Tongue Disease.

So, if you are as confused as I have been about these distinct diseases and this ongoing chronic situation, here are some facts that may be of interest.

CWD is a highly contagious disease caused by prions — meaning structurally abnormal proteins — that develop in the brain of infected deer.

These prions accumulate in the brain and over time, create sponge-like holes in the brain — technically referred to as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies — and this damage invariably leads to the death of that infected deer.   

One of the tell-tale symptoms of this condition is odd, unnatural behavior on the part of the deer, such as running in circles, having no apparent fear of humans and stumbling and continually falling down.

A common description of this behavior is that the deer is “acting like a zombie.” Other symptoms of the disease include obvious weight loss, apparent depression and lack of energy. 

It is important to know that it takes several years for a deer infected with CWD to show these symptoms. This means that the deer you are harvesting may look perfectly normal, but it could already be infected.

And this boils down to the question whether a deer infected with CWD is safe to eat. According to the CDC, there has never been a case in which an infected deer has transferred this specific disease to a human.

Realistically, a lot of deer that are actually infected with CWD have probably been consumed over the years, all without any adverse history so far — “so far” being the operative word here.

Still, it would seem to be a smart practice not to consume a harvested deer that just doesn’t look healthy. It would also make sense to keep up to date on what counties in Missouri and Illinois have confirmed CWD cases and to avoid consuming a deer in those counties if you can avoid it.

As of June 30, 2021, for example, the Missouri Department of Conservation was reporting confirmed CWD outbreaks among free-ranging deer in 18 counties, including at least 6 in the Missouri Ozarks, the two most conspicuous counties there being St. Genevieve County with 35 cases, and Franklin County with 24 cases.

But it is likely that there are more than just 18 counties in Missouri where infections exist because, as noted earlier, the infected deer tend to be asymptomatic for a long period of time.

As for Illinois, their Department of Natural Resources identifies Illinois counties having CWD outbreaks, and they are essentially in the northern one-third of the state.

The process by which deer become infected with CWD is not entirely clear, but it is believed to result from the exposure of healthy deer to the bodily fluids of infected deer, such as the urine and saliva of the infected deer.

And apparently the tainted fluids, such as those in the urine of an infected deer, remain in the soil and retain the ability to infect healthy deer over an extended period of time, long after the infected deer is gone.

That is why once an infection starts in a specific location and herd, it is hard to get a healthy deer herd started again in that location.

EHD, or the so-called “blue tongue disease,” is caused by a virus, not a prion as in the case of CWD. And it is a blood disease, not a neurodegenerative disease.

There are actually two related forms of this disease, one of which is referred to as “EHD” and the other of which is referred to as Bluetongue Virus or BTV.
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Both forms of this disease can infect deer but it is EHD that primarily involves white tail deer while BTV primarily involves sheep, goats and other domesticated animals. We will be talking here about EHD.  

EHD is not contagious in the sense that deer directly infect other deer, as would be the case with CWD.

Rather, this virus is spread to a specific healthy deer by a midge or gnat that is carrying the virus that it previously picked up from some other infected animal.

This virus incubates in the midge before being transferred to the healthy deer. This is a seasonal disease — one that begins to appear in August through October — when the midges spreading this virus are most active.

Once a frost kills the midges, the spread of this disease will stop until the next year. And some years result in a greater incidence of this disease, depending upon the weather conditions; if the summer starts out with a lot of rain but by August there is a drought, this is the so-called perfect storm for an outbreak of EHD.

This virus attacks the circulatory system of the infected deer by degrading the blood vessel walls, and by causing blood clotting and hemorrhaging to occur.

The incubation period for this virus to develop in an infected deer is pretty quick, usually within a week. At that point, symptoms begin to appear. These symptoms include a high fever, weakness, loss of weight, drooling around the mouth and usually a blue tongue.

Some of the EHD symptoms overlap with those of CWD, but the most obvious for EHD is the need to be near water, as was the case with the two dead deer I found recently on my farm.

This need to be near water is believed to be due to the thirst and high fever that is common with this disease.   

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