Hemorrhagic Disease Suspected in Deer Deaths

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The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) recently received reports of deer deaths in Adair, Boyle, Breathitt, Casey, Cumberland, Fleming, Green, Hardin, Henderson, Larue, Marion, Rowan, Taylor and Woodford counties. Officials at the KDFWR suspect hemorrhagic disease may be causing the deaths. The only significant outbreak is in Breathitt County where over 58 deer have been reported dead. The dead or weak and emaciated deer are usually found near water.

“Hemorrhagic disease is caused by a virus that occurs about every two years in Kentucky,” says Danny Watson, a wildlife biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

With deer hunting seasons opening, hunters are concerned about the safety of eating deer that may be infected with hemorrhagic disease. Hemorrhagic disease is not infectious to humans.

Biting gnats transmit hemorrhagic disease. Hemorrhagic disease usually occurs in late summer and early fall because of the increased presence of these biting gnats. Deer with chronic cases can be found in winter.

Hemorrhagic disease occurs annually in the southeastern United States, but its distribution and severity of occurrence widely varies. Less than 25 percent of the deer in a population usually die from the disease, but death rates can be higher in certain cases.

Signs of the disease depend on the strength of the virus and length of infection in the animal. Hemorrhagic disease causes fever, labored breathing and swelling of the head, neck, tongue and eyelids. Infected deer may die within 72 hours, or they may slowly deteriorate for months from lameness and starvation. Early in the cycle of the disease, animals may show little or no sign of infection. Infected deer that survive for a period of time experience lameness, loss of appetite and greatly reduced activity.

In some instances, outbreaks occurred simultaneously in deer, sheep and cattle. This is not due to the disease spreading from deer to livestock or vice versa, but is an indication the biting gnats are present in significant numbers to transmit disease.