CWD - Chronic Wasting Disease - What is it?

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In this article we are going to be taking an indepth look at chronic wasting disease (CWD). Over the last few months we have seen an increase in coverage and questions about CWD on the Internet and TV. Fortunately there is an abundance of good information from trusted resources available on the Internet. However it appears that little of this information has made it to the general public.

BGH is bringing this information to you because big game hunters are the most likely to be around CWD infected deer or elk. Remember to check out the reference section which contains several links to other pages that have high quality CWD info.

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a lethal degenerative disease of deer and elk discovered in the US during the late 1960's. CWD is similar to scrapies in sheep and 'mad-cow' in cattle. All of these diseases are part of a group called transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). TSE's were relatively recently discovered to be caused by an infectious agent called prions. Disease is usually associated with viruses or bacteria which cause most forms of illness. However a prion is a protein that has gone astray and begins causing neural damage in its host. There is no known cure for prions although the research field is quite immature.

Where has CWD been found?

CWD has been found in captive and wild herds in five US states and the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The states are South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Montana, and Colorado.

What are the signs of a CWD infected deer or elk?

  • Weight loss over time
  • Listlessness, blank facial expression, lowering of the head
  • Walking in continual patterns
  • Excessive salivation and grinding of teeth
  • Elk may act nervous or are easily excited

These symptoms have been observed in captive animals. Noticeable symptoms are probably hard to judge in wild animals that can only be observed for a few minutes when in a hunting environment.

Can humans contract CWD?

There are no known cases of a humans contracting CWD ever. However the possibility of human contraction has not been ruled out by scientists.

Diseases similar to CWD have no or extremely low infectious rates to humans. Scrapies in sheep has been known since the 1700's but has not been passed to humans after centuries of close contact in ranching environments.

Mad Cow disease is believed to have made a bovine to human leap in Europe in the past decade. However all evidence suggests that the chance of contraction are extremely low.

When handling or dressing wild game be sure to minimize contact with the brain and spinal matter, just be on the safe side.

What can I do to help?

If you are a hunter, check with your local division of wildlife or game division and find out if they have a CWD monitoring program. If your state or province does have a monitoring program find out if they accept donation of your harvested game's head. Scientist will use the head to test the brain matter of deer or elk for CWD. Head donating helps monitor the animal populations without having to have state sanctioned and financed game collections.

References and Further Reading:

Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance

Colorado DOW on Chronic Wasting Disease


Wyoming GFD on CWD