Chronic Wasting Disease - FAQs

What if I am hunting in a unit, state, or province not listed in the CWD proclamation?
North Dakotans hunting in a state or province that has not identified CWD, or hunting in an area within a state or province not listed in the CWD proclamation, is asked to follow the guidelines listed above as recommendations to minimize any potential spread of disease.

What common sense precautions should hunters take when handling or processing deer and elk?
There is no scientific evidence that CWD can be naturally transmitted to humans. However, as a general precaution, North Dakota Game and Fish and health officials advise that hunters take the following common sense precautions when handling and processing deer or elk in areas known to have CWD:

  1. Avoid sick animals. Do not shoot, handle, or consume any animal that appears sick; contact your local wildlife agency personnel.
  2. Wear rubber/latex gloves when field dressing carcasses.
  3. Minimize handling the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes of any deer, moose or elk. Normal field dressing coupled with boning out a carcass will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.
  4. Thoroughly wash hands, knives and other tools used to field dress the animal. Disinfect tools by soaking them in a solution of 50 percent unscented household bleach and 50 percent water for an hour. Allow them to air dry.
  5. Avoid contact with any animal that appears sick and do not consume.
  6. Bones and unprocessed remains should be disposed of through burial, landfill or incineration.

What is chronic wasting disease?
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a progressive, fatal disease of the nervous system of white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and moose. It belongs to a family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs), or prion diseases. Although CWD shares certain features with other TSEs, like bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease), scrapie in sheep and goats, and Creutzfeldt - Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, it is a distinct disease apparently affecting only deer, elk and moose. It causes damage to portions of the brain; creating holes in the brain cells and causing a sponge-like appearance.

Where is it found?
The origin of CWD is unknown and it may never be possible to definitively determine how or when CWD arose. It was first diagnosed in a Colorado elk research facility in 1967 and a few years later in a similar Wyoming research facility. It was later discovered in wild elk and deer near those facilities in Colorado and Wyoming. The known distribution of CWD in wild deer, elk, and moose is Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Saskatchewan and Alberta. CWD also has been found in farmed elk or deer herds in Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Saskatchewan, Alberta and South Korea. CWD has also been found in wild moose and reindeer in Norway. CWD was first detected in North Dakota in a mule deer buck taken in the fall of 2009 in the southwestern part of the state. See http://www.cwd-info.org for more information.

How common is it?
CWD has unfortunately become more prevalent in recent years. In Wisconsin, CWD infects about 25-30 percent of the deer in its core management zone. In other areas, percentages of infected animals range from 0-30 percent in deer and wild elk. The number of animals diagnosed with CWD has steadily increased in recent years. It has also been found in numerous new locations where the disease was not previously detected.

What wildlife species are affected by CWD?
Most members of the cervid family are known to be naturally susceptible to CWD: elk, mule deer,  white-tailed deer and moose. Susceptibility of other members of the deer family (Cervidae) and other wildlife species is variable and depends on the nature of and route of exposure.

What are the signs of CWD?
CWD is a slowly progressing disease; signs typically are not seen until the animal is 12-18 months of age and may take as long as 3 or more years. CWD attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions, become weak and eventually die. Clinical signs identified include excessive salivation, loss of appetite, progressive weight loss, excessive thirst and urination, listlessness, teeth grinding, lowering of the head and drooping ears. It should be remembered that many of these signs can be a result of other diseases.

How is CWD transmitted?
Prions have been found in bodily secretion such as feces, urine and saliva, and in tissues such as neurologic tissue (brain, spine peripheral nerves), lymphatic tissues, heart, spleen, kidney, lung, soft palate and skeletal muscle. Experimental and circumstantial evidence suggests infected cervids transmit the disease laterally (animal-to-animal). In wild populations, decomposition of carcasses, scrapes, rubs and shared feeding sites play a role in transmission as well as social behavior. CWD and other wildlife diseases seems more likely to occur in areas where deer, elk or moose are crowded or where they congregate at man-made feed and water stations. Artificial feeding of deer, elk and moose compounds the problem. Prions exist in the environment for years to decades. Recent research indicates that prions can be aerosolized and lead to infection also.

What is the progression of the disease?
Post-infection prions can be detected in as early as a few months in lymphatic tissue. The prions progressively move from the lymphatic system into the neurologic system. Prions have been found in lymph nodes of infected wild fawns as young as 5 months old and in the obex (brainstem) at 9 months old. Clinical signs will not start to appear for 10-18 months post infection, but may not show up for years. Although clinical signs may not be outwardly apparent, prions are shed throughout the duration of the infection. Infected animals if not harvested or removed will eventually succumb to the disease.

What causes CWD?
CWD is caused by a prion, an abnormal form of cellular protein that is most commonly found in the central nervous system and in lymphoid tissue. The prions cause sponge-like lesions in the animal's brain. These abnormal prions tend to accumulate only in certain parts of infected animals, i.e., brain, eyes, spinal cord, lymph nodes, tonsils and spleen. It is this accumulation that leads to eventual cell death, which leads to clinical signs. CWD is not caused by a virus, bacteria or nutritional imbalance.

How do you test for CWD?
The only sure and practical way to diagnose CWD is through microscopic examination of the brain stem or lymphatic tissues of a cervid using immunohistochemisrty (IHC). A more rapid test using ELISA on lymph nodes is reliable as a screening method for the disease. A test for live animals, involving the removal of tonsils or rectal lymphatic tissue is currently in experimental and research stages. Testing for CWD is done by federally-approved laboratories; there is no quick test that you or your meat processor can perform to determine if your animal has CWD.

Is there a treatment for infected deer and elk?
There is currently no effective treatment or vaccine for a cervid that has CWD. An animal displaying clinical signs consistent with CWD should be euthanized. Removing infected animals will help prevent spread of disease or infection.

Is CWD transmissible to humans?
Currently there are conflicting experimental studies regarding the potential for CWD to infect people. Researchers have found no naturally occurring link between the disease and any neurological disease that affects humans including the human TSE disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. Between 1997 and 1998, three cases of sporadic CJD occurred in the U.S. in young adults. These individuals had consumed venison, which led to speculation about possible transmission of CWD from deer or elk to humans. However, review of the clinical records and pathological studies of all three cases by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, did not find a causal link to CWD.

The prions are known to accumulate in certain parts of the infected animal -- brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, meat and lymph nodes. Consumption of these parts is not recommended. Furthermore, health officials advise caution. Hunters are encouraged not to consume meat from animals known to be infected. Hunters should take common sense precautions when field dressing and processing deer or elk taken in areas where CWD has been diagnosed.

Is CWD transmissible to domestic livestock?
There is no evidence that CWD can be naturally transmitted to livestock or animals other than deer and elk. Numerous experiments and investigations are currently being conducted.

What should you do if you see a deer or elk that looks sick, emaciated or lethargic?
Note the location and as much information as possible about the animal and situation. Call the North Dakota Game and Fish Department at 701-328-6300 immediately. Arrangements will be made to investigate the report.

Farmed deer and elk: What is the ND Department of Agriculture, State Board Of Animal Health’s role in CWD?
The North Dakota Board of Animal Health initiated mandatory inventory of all game farms in 1993 and mandatory CWD surveillance, reporting and testing in 1998 of any farmed elk or deer of more than 12 months of age that dies from any cause. In September 2017, after nearly 20 years of mandatory testing with no positive farmed animals identified, the Board of Animal Health voted to make testing voluntary for some producers. Producers who ship animals across state lines must continue to test. Producers who are located within 25 miles of a CWD positive wild deer must continue to test. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department takes the risk of CWD very seriously. The Game and Fish Department will continue to work with the farmed deer and elk producers, as well as the BOAH, to minimize the risk of CWD to both wild cervids and farmed deer and elk. Before any farmed deer or elk can be imported into the state, it must pass a five-year herd health risk assessment, which includes a review of the herd history approved by the BOAH. If approved, animals must meet other requirements before importation, including veterinary inspection for general health and tuberculosis and brucellosis testing.

If I shoot a deer in a unit where there are carcass transportation restrictions in place (see current CWD proclamation for restrictions), how do I tag the meat for transport?

Game and Fish would prefer that you take the tagged head with you out of the field and bring it to one of the drop-off stations in the unit so it could be tested. If that’s not convenient, tag the deer in the field and leave the tagged head. Keep the carcass tag with you along with the meat when you take the meat out of the field.

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