Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a fatal neurologic disease that affects deer, elk, and moose. The disease is caused by prions, which are abnormal proteins. These prions are unable to be recycled or eliminated within the body, and when they accumulate, they cause damage to neural tissues, including the brain.
To date, CWD is not known to affect humans, though the Centers for Disease Control recommends that hunters discard venison harvested from CWD positive animals. No treatments or vaccines are currently available for this disease.
Signs of Chronic Wasting Disease
Deer with CWD are often very thin, uncoordinated, listless, and may stumble. They are often excessively thirsty and may be drooling. Infected deer may not act fearful of humans. CWD can have a long incubation period, meaning that neurological symptoms can develop slowly, and an infected deer may not show any symptoms for months or years after infection. Sadly, CWD is always fatal.
The Spread of Chronic Wasting Disease
Since its discovery in 1967, CWD has been found in at least 24 states in the United States and two Canadian provinces. It was first found in Virginia in 2009 in Frederick County, and has been found in at least one harvested deer every year since then.
The disease is spread through direct contact with infected deer – their saliva, feces, blood, and urine can transmit the prions; contaminated water and soil may also play a role in transmission. Prions can persist in the environment for years.
Wildlife Rehabilitation Impacts
After the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) first detected CWD, they set up a containment area in four counties in the northern part of the state. This containment area served as a mandatory sampling area for hunters who harvest deer in that area; there were also restrictions on the movement of harvested deer in and out of the area. No deer rehabilitation is permitted in the containment area, and no deer may be moved out of the containment area for rehabilitation, due to the highly contagious nature of this disease.
Sadly, Chronic Wasting Disease has continued to spread each year in Virginia, and as of May 2023, there are three CWD "Disease Management Areas" (DMAs) in Virginia: two in Northern Virginia and one in southwestern Virginia. Counties included in these areas are as follows:
DMA 1: Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren Counties
DMA 2: Arlington, Culpeper, Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun, Madison, Orange, Page, Prince William, and Rappahannock Counties
DMA 3: Carroll, Floyd, Montgomery, Patrick, and Pulaski Counties
Rehabilitation of fawns in these counties is not permitted, nor is the removal of fawns or other deer from this area. It's especially important to make every effort possible to leave healthy fawns where they are to have every chance possible to reunite with their mothers. If you find a truly orphaned or injured fawn, call the DWR helpline at 1-855-571-9003.
It is extremely important to follow the regulations on moving live deer and/or deer carcasses from the established disease management areas in an effort to maintain the health of wild deer in the rest of the state.
What You Can Do
Research on Chronic Wasting Disease is ongoing as new information is discovered and the disease continues to spread. Stay informed about the sampling and studying that is going on in your state.
- Don’t feed deer. Artificial food sources lead to the artificial congregation of deer, which dramatically increases chances that infected deer will pass prions to uninfected deer. Feeders and salt licks are prime locations for deer to trade saliva and to come into contact with urine and feces. Feeding deer is prohibited year-round within 25 miles of a CWD detection, there are many counties within the state where feeding is banned.
- Don’t be a fawn-napper! Fawns are meant to be by themselves while their mothers are nearby, out of sight. Unless you absolutely know the doe is deceased, leave fawns alone so they can reunite with their mothers. Moving wildlife can increase the risk of transmitting diseases, so leaving fawns in the area will also help protect them, and other deer.
- Report a sick deer. If you see a deer in your area displaying symptoms of Chronic Wasting Disease, contact DWR.
- Comply with sampling of harvested deer. Stay up-to-date with DWR requirements for sampling deer harvested within a disease management area as these may change from year to year. If you’re a hunter in an area free from known disease, consider a volunteer sampling of your harvested deer.