On January 12, 1967, Chronic Wasting Disease was first identified in Colorado in a captive deer herd. It was later detected in free-ranging deer in 1981. The disease subsequently spread to surrounding areas of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming by the 1990s. Since 2000, CWD has spread across most of the interior states and provinces of North America.
- What is Chronic Wasting Disease?
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a neurological disease of deer, elk, and moose caused by infectious, misfolded proteins called prions. Because of the abnormal shape, they aren’t recognized and destroyed by the body, so they stack up in clumps in brain and nervous system tissue and kill the surrounding cells. Microscopically, this gives the brain a spongy appearance which is why it’s categorized as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). Other more familiar diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (or “mad cow disease”) and scrapie, which is found in domestic sheep and goats, are also TSEs. TSEs are always fatal to infected animals because there are no TSE cures or vaccines.
- What are the symptoms?
Once a deer is infected with CWD, it can take over a year before symptoms begin to develop. Symptoms will include dramatic weight loss (wasting), poor body condition, subtle head tremors may occur, head and ears may be droopy, and, in the last stages, it is not uncommon for the animal to have excessive drooling. However, other diseases or injuries can cause these symptoms. In order to confirm a deer has CWD, the brain or lymph nodes must be examined microscopically for spongiform lesions.
- How does it spread?
The disease is transmitted through direct contact with body fluids (blood, saliva, feces, urine) infected with prions. It can also be passed indirectly in the environment through contaminated soil, food, or water. CWD prions are contagious and once established, the disease is nearly impossible to get rid of. The prions that cause CWD can stay in the environment for long periods of time, so even after an infected animal has died, other animals can still get infected from the contaminated area for years.
- Is there a cure?
There are no treatments at this time and the disease will always result in the death of the infected animal. There are also no preventative vaccines to protect healthy animals.
- Is it transmissible to humans?
Currently, researchers have found no evidence that CWD can infect people. However, as the potential health risk is continuing to be evaluated by public health officials, exposure to infectious materials should be avoided. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises people to not eat the meat of any animal that tests positive for CWD. Also, when field dressing or processing deer, elk, or moose in areas where CWD is known to exist, precautions should be taken. Hunters should wear latex gloves when field dressing, bone out the meat, and not to saw through bones. Also, avoid cutting through the brain or spinal cord and handling of these tissues. People should not eat the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, and lymph nodes of any deer, elk, or moose. Hunters should thoroughly wash their hands and instruments after cleaning their harvest. You should consider having your animal tested if it was harvested in an area where CWD is known to exist. If you have the meat processed professionally, the meat should be processed separately without the addition of meat from other individual animals to yours.
- Where does it currently exist?
As of June 15, 2023, CWD in deer, elk and/or moose has been reported in these US states and Canadian provinces:
- Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming as well as Canadian provinces Alberta, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.
- How can I help keep CWD out of Georgia?
Don’t move live deer: Moving live deer is the greatest risk for introducing CWD. Because there is no reliable test commercially available to check for CWD in live deer, people unintentionally move healthy-looking infected deer. Such deer may be shedding prions before showing outward symptoms of the disease. Therefore, the live importation of all deer species from other states has been prohibited since 2005.
Dispose of carcasses properly: Carcass parts from CWD positive deer can transmit the disease to other deer when left on the landscape. Georgia hunters that hunt out-of-state may only bring home boned out meat, hides, skulls or skull caps with antlers attached and all soft tissue removed (velvet antlers are okay), jawbones with no soft tissue, elk ivories, and finished taxidermy mounts. All other carcass parts must be left behind. Although CWD prions can also be found in the urine of infected animals, the use of natural deer urine attractants has not been demonstrated to spread CWD. Using only synthetic urine attractants eliminates any potential risk of introducing CWD into new areas.
Minimize deer-to-deer contact: Encouraging deer to come together in the same small area increases their exposure to each other’s saliva and other body fluids directly or on food, which can spread diseases quickly. Providing corn, protein feed, or other feed increases the possibility of direct contact with an infected deer and its body fluids. The practices below may reduce possible impacts of feeding and baiting on disease transmission:
Guidelines for feeding and baiting deer that may reduce impact on disease transmission:
- Broadcast the feed over larger areas (500+ square feet); avoid piling feed
- Avoid trough and gravity feeders
- Avoid putting out feed during the warm summer months (increased risk of aflatoxin fungal growth)
- Only put out amounts that will be completely consumed within a few days
- Move feeding locations periodically to avoid buildup of diseases in soil
- Limit feeding to when you are actively hunting; avoid feeding out of season
This guidance not only helps reduce possible disease spread but also has other benefits to wildlife. These practices reduce the growth of aflatoxin, a serious poison for deer, turkeys, and most wildlife that consume corn. They also encourage more natural movement patterns and space use, which reduces over browsing and trampling of vegetation closest to the feeder.
- What will happen if we ever find CWD in Georgia and what is the department doing?
WRD has been collecting and testing samples from sick and hunter-killed deer in Georgia since 2002 and so far have not found any CWD positive deer. However, it is possible that it could be here and has not been found yet. Our surveillance plan is designed to detect CWD soon after introduction and we will continue to sample and test both visibly sick and apparently healthy hunter-harvested deer annually.
While we are taking prevention of CWD seriously, we are also prepared for it if it comes. CWD will not be the end of deer hunting in any area where it occurs, but there will be some key differences hunting in a CWD management zone. Here are some key actions that would be implemented:
- A CWD Management Zone will be established in each county that touches a 5-mile radius around every known positive case. This zone may change as new positive deer are discovered. The primary objectives within the zone are to support hunters as the first line of defense in preventing the spread of CWD outside the zone and to keep prevalence of the disease low within the zone.
- CWD can be spread by transporting and discarding infected carcass parts into new areas. Hunters will not be allowed to bring whole carcasses or whole deer heads out of the CWD Management Zone. Only boned out meat, hides, skulls or skull caps with antlers attached and all soft tissue removed (velvet antlers are okay), jawbones with no soft tissue, elk ivories, and finished taxidermy mounts can be moved; all other carcass parts must be left behind. Courtesy stations will be established around the disease management zones where hunters can process their deer and properly dispose of the carcass parts that must be left behind.
- Increased sampling of deer will be encouraged within the zone. WRD will establish numerous sample collection sites throughout the CWD Management Zone where hunters can drop off deer heads to have samples collected.
- Targeted CWD management. WRD will use a targeted removal strategy to keep CWD prevalence low within the zone. Each time a deer tests positive for CWD we will attempt to remove the deer in the immediate vicinity of that positive deer. The targeted removal approach helps keep prevalence lower without significantly reducing the overall deer population. To be clear, WRD’s objective does not include significant herd reductions for areas that are not already overabundant with deer. Under no circumstances are we trying to eliminate deer from any given area.
- Age structure management. Older deer in areas with CWD are more likely to have contracted the disease and can spread it to other deer. Managing toward a younger deer population also helps keep prevalence of the disease low. Antler restrictions that promote older age classes may be rescinded from any counties within a disease management zone.
- Feeding and baiting guidelines. Providing concentrated food sources that promote deer congregating in small areas increases the transmission of some diseases. Reducing or eliminating the use of feed or bait for deer may help reduce transmission of CWD. We strongly discourage trough feeders, gravity feeders, or piling feed up on the ground. Distributing the feed across a larger area may help reduce transmission by reducing the sharing of saliva by multiple deer. Limiting use of bait to just peak hunting times may also help.
- CWD surveillance plan
View our CWD surveillance plan.
- CWD response plan
View our CWD response plan.
- What should I do if I suspect an animal has CWD?
If you observe a deer showing the symptoms described above, please contact your local Game Management office.