There are a lot of things hunters need to worry about: firearm safety, weather conditions, private property boundaries, creatures other than deer in the woods. In addition, depending on where they’re hunting, they need to be concerned with a deadly deer disease.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a prion disease that affects deer, elk, reindeer, sika deer and moose. It is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (a contagious brain disease), similar to scrapie in goats and sheep and mad cow disease, according to Andrea Korman, a CWD biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“It’s caused by a misfolded prion protein – not bacteria, not a virus,” she explained. The protein is found naturally in mammal bodies. Unfortunately, there is no immune response to this disease, which concentrates in lymphoid and central nervous system tissues, ultimately creating sponge-like holes in the brain. Korman said we still don’t know why these proteins fold, but as they build up, create they plaques, which lead to the holes.

Some important notes on CWD: It is always fatal; it is contagious; there is no vaccine or treatment for it; and has a lengthy incubation period (18 – 24 months). According to the CDC, infected animal symptoms can include drastic weight loss (wasting), stumbling, listlessness and other neurologic symptoms.

“Deer will look and act totally normal until the very end,” Korman said. “They don’t often die from it because deer are more likely to die from predation, vehicle collision and hunter harvest.” CWD continues to spread, though, because predators and scavengers can carry the proteins through their digestive tracts.

So what happens if a hunter downs an infected deer? First, find out if CWD is an issue in the region you’re hunting in. The U.S. Geological Survey keeps an updated map at If you’re not in a high risk area, you can quarter the deer and take the meat home with you, or take the deer to a cooperating processor.

If you harvest a deer in an area that is known to have CWD, have it tested before you ingest it, Korman said. In high risk areas, you can leave unused parts at the kill site, take it all home and put the susceptible body parts in your trash or take the deer to a processor. The high risk body parts include the spleen, the spinal column and the head (including the brain, eyes, tonsils and lymph nodes).

Korman said to always wear gloves when field dressing a deer. Avoid cutting through the spinal column. After processing, thoroughly wash your hands and tools with soap and hot water. Use a 40% bleach solution to sanitize surfaces and tools and soak them for five minutes, then rinse thoroughly with cold water.

The testing of suspect meat is important, because the CDC recommends humans do not eat meat that has tested positive, even though there is no direct evidence CWD can spread to humans.

Korman also noted that it’s not only hunters who can help monitor CWD either. Anyone can report roadkill deer to state hunting or wildlife commissions so they can be tested as well.

Jonathan Campbell, Ph.D., of Penn State Extension added that all outdoor enthusiasts can continue to enjoy the hunting season despite the risk of CWD – they just need to take the proper precautions to make sure they’re doing it safely.

by Courtney Llewellyn