Chronic Wasting Disease Update

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After two rather quiet years, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has jumped further east. Last week, the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets reported that captive white-tailed deer from two separate facilities in Oneida County in central New York had tested positive for CWD. Originally found only in western states, the disease alarmed wildlife officials around the nation when it first crossed the Mississippi River into Wisconsin in 2002. That same year, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) took aggressive steps to prevent introduction of the disease into the Commonwealth and established a surveillance program. CWD has not been found in Virginia or in any adjacent states.

The CWD outbreak has had a detrimental economic impact in states where it has been found, costing millions of dollars in efforts to contain the disease and in lost revenues. Given the potentially devastating effects of chronic wasting disease, it is imperative that the VDGIF not only continue wildlife disease monitoring programs but also keep current on CWD outbreaks in other states.

According to VDGIF Deer Program Leader, Matt Knox, "Regrettably, the finding of CWD in New York is not that surprising. It has been the opinion of our Department staff for years that private ownership of deer and the inter and intra state trafficking in deer that accompanies the captive deer industry represents the number one chronic wasting disease risk factor. Any state with a major captive deer industry has a high CWD risk." The New York press release noted that New York State had 433 establishments raising 9,600 deer and elk in captivity. In contrast, VDGIF records indicate that there are currently only 23 facilities in Virginia that hold and possess approximately 550 captive deer.

VDGIF has taken one of the most proactive and aggressive roles in the eastern United States to prohibit private ownership of deer and to monitor all other captive cervids in the Commonwealth for CWD. According to Assistant Deer Program Leader Nelson Lafon, "Unlike in many other states, possession of captive deer in Virginia is primarily limited to wildlife exhibitors such as nature parks and zoos. Private ownership of native white-tailed deer is prohibited by law." Virginia has been forward thinking in addressing the threat of CWD. The Department has maintained a moratorium on the issuance of deer farming permits for more than a decade, primarily in response to disease introduction concerns. Lafon noted that there is only one remaining active fallow deer farm in the state.

In 2001, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law that made it illegal to erect a fence with the intent to confine native white-tailed deer. Since 2002 a VDGIF permit has been required to possess any member of the deer family in Virginia, and regulations have been strengthened to require that: (1) no deer can be moved into or within Virginia, (2) all captive deer must be individually marked, (3) all mortalities of adult captive deer must be tested for CWD, and (4) records must be kept for individual deer and must be made available to VDGIF which conducts on site inspections annually.

Since 2002 the Department has initiated three types of CWD surveillance. The first was random testing of over 1,000 hunter-killed deer statewide in fall 2002. Every county in the Commonwealth was tested. The second was testing of CWD "suspect" or "target" animals identified by the public and deer hunters. This target surveillance is ongoing. Lastly, any adult deer held in captivity without a permit will be euthanized and tested.

Samples collected from over 1,230 Virginia deer over the past four years have all tested negative for CWD. The only way to make a definitive diagnosis is to examine the brain or lymph nodes in a laboratory. There is no practical live-animal test, and there is no vaccine or treatment for CWD. VDGIF Wildlife Division Director Bob Duncan commented, "Even though it's been unpopular to have to sacrifice animals, we've had to take a hard line to protect the resource. We simply can not tolerate even the slightest risk of CWD exposure to Virginia's deer herds."

In recent years the Department has been stepping up its efforts to educate the public about the repercussions of feeding and holding captive wildlife. The hiring of Dr. Jonathan Sleeman as the Department's first staff wildlife veterinarian was another proactive step in addressing wildlife disease issues. Said Dr. Sleeman, "The Department continues to put a very high priority on disease surveillance and prevention and asks for the public's assistance in being on the lookout for CWD 'suspect' animals."

CWD "suspect" animals are defined as deer or elk 18 months of age or older that are emaciated and show some combination of signs, including abnormal behavior, increased salivation, tremors, stumbling, and un-coordination. A simple definition is an adult deer or elk that looks as though it is starving and appears to have neurological disorders. CWD is a progressive neurological (brain and nervous system) disease found in deer and elk. The disease ultimately results in death. Species naturally affected include elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and black-tailed deer. CWD belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE's).

What should a deer hunter or person do if they see a deer that shows CWD symptoms? First, do not attempt to contact, disturb, kill, or remove the animal. Accurately document the location of the animal and immediately contact the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at 1-804-367-1258. Arrangements will be made to investigate the report.

Persons wanting more information on CWD are advised to visit the following web sites:

Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, ( and the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance (