It may sound like something out of a bad horror movie, but experts are warning that ‘Zombie Deer Disease’ is anything but. The real name for the illness is ‘Chronic Wasting Disease’ (CWD), and it was first discovered in Colorado in 1967. Progressive and fatal, the disease causes chronic weight loss leading, ultimately, to death. In other words, the animals affected are literally ‘wasting away.’
Other symptoms of CWD include drooling, a ‘blank’ or absent facial expression, listlessness, tremors, lowering of the head, grinding of the teeth, lack of coordination and a lack of fear of people or other potential predators. Most commonly seen in members of the cervid (deer) family including mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, reindeer and moose, fatalities from the disease has now been recorded in at least 22 states and parts of Canada.
The disease is caused by a type of infectious protein called prions, which are not easily transferred between species, however, experts are now warning that we should be taking precautions. While prions in their original form will not easily move between different species they have been known to evolve. One classic example of this is the ‘mad cow disease’ epidemic. Originally recognized solely as a bovine disease, as the prions involved we saw it transmitted to people who ate infected meat resulting in several hundred human infections. The fear now is that CWD may be the next to follow this pattern.
Mark Zabel, associate director of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University advised that “we have every reason to suspect” that CWD could pass to humans. He explained that the disease “may still be evolving, and it may be just a matter of time before a prion evolves in a deer or elk that is capable of infecting a human.”
Confirming this risk, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shared the following statement on their website: “To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people. Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.”
Experts recommend that hunters take necessary precautions when hunting deer (including elk and moose). Recommended precautions include:
– Always wear gloves when handling deer or deer meat
– Do not put any equipment used to handle or cut raw deer meat in your mouth at any time
– Avoid handling or cutting through the spinal cords or brains of deer
– Get all deer tested for CWD prior to consumption or handling their meat
– Do not eat the brain, spinal cord, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes or eyes of deer
– Properly dispose of all infected deer meat
– Don’t touch, eat or handle deer urine or poop
– Avoid deer that are acting like zombies in any way
If you witness any deer behaving strangely or have concerns that you have spotted a dead deer that does not appear to have an obvious cause of death, please contact your local wildlife department or health department immediately in order to allow for a proper investigation.