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About Chronic Wasting Disease

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is an untreatable and fatal brain and nervous system disease found in deer, elk, and moose. More information can be found on the CWD Fact Sheet (PDF).

CWD Distribution

In New York: CWD was first discovered in captive and wild deer in Oneida County in 2005. Since then, no new cases of CWD have been found.

Elsewhere: To date, wild or captive deer, elk, and moose have been infected by CWD in 25 states and three Canadian provinces. For an up-to-date map of CWD-positive states and provinces, visit the CWD Alliance webpage (leaves DEC website).

How CWD Spreads

  • CWD prions are shed through saliva, urine, and feces of infected animals. A healthy deer, elk, or moose can pick up the disease by direct contact with the infected animal's body fluids or by eating contaminated sources of food or water.
  • CWD prions bind with soil particles and remain infectious in the environment for up to 18 years or more, with the ability to infect future generations of deer, elk, or moose.
  • Movement of living or dead infected animals increases the range of the disease. Infected animals can be moved by commercial big game farmers or by hunter-killed carcasses. Scavengers like coyotes and crows can also spread CWD prions over a greater area.

Find out how you can help prevent the spread of CWD to protect our valuable wild deer herd. Part of reducing the risk is preventing the movement of whole deer carcasses across state borders. Process your deer locally before transporting it out of or into New York State. View a list of local deer processors and taxidermists for this purpose (PDF).

Signs of Infection

An infected animal does not always look sick when it has CWD. The slow attack on the brain and nervous system may take several months to several years before the animal shows signs of infection, such as:

  • emaciation
  • disorientation
  • loss of bodily functions
  • extreme thirst
  • death

Note: Some signs are not unique to CWD and can occur for other reasons, such as chronic lung abscesses, brain abscesses or injuries from a motor vehicle collision.

Diagnosis and Testing

Annually DEC collects approximately 2,000 samples of brain tissue and lymph nodes from hunter-killed wild white-tailed deer and submits them to a federally approved laboratory for prion testing.

Prions: The Contagious Agent

Abnormally shaped proteins, named "prions," are documented as the cause of CWD. When a prion enters an organism, it causes existing, healthy proteins to convert into diseased, misfolded proteins.

Prions accumulate in tissues of the brain, eyes, tonsils, spleen, lymph nodes, intestinal tract, and spinal cord.

Prion-type diseases, such as CWD, scrapie in goats and sheep, mad cow disease in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in humans are known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE) diseases. While CWD is similar to these diseases, it has a uniquely shaped prion that only affects deer, elk, and moose.

Impact to Human Health

Hunters who harvest a deer in New York can pay to have their deer tested. To learn more, visit the Cornell University Wildlife Health Lab page (leaves DEC website). Please note that the CWD test is not considered a food safety test. The result will be positive, non-detect, or not able to be tested. The CDC recommends no one knowingly consume a CWD-positive deer.

CWD is not known to infect humans at this time, but the following precautions are advised when handling, processing, and eating big game meat.

Handling, Processing, and Eating Big Game Meat

  • Wear rubber gloves when field dressing and processing animals.
  • Minimize the handling of brain and spinal tissue.
  • Sanitize hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing. Soaking hard surfaces and metal tools for one hour at room temperature in a 50% solution of household bleach and water will inactivate CWD prions.
  • Avoid consuming the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, intestinal tract, and lymph nodes of harvested animals. Normal field dressing, coupled with boning out a carcass, will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.
  • Bag and dispose of remaining carcass parts in the trash or a municipal landfill.

Videos on how to properly and safely process a deer are available on the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance website (leaves DEC website).

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