Questions and Answers

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a progressive neurological (brain and nervous system) disease found in North American deer, elk, and moose. CWD belongs to a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSE’s). CWD causes a characteristic spongy degeneration in the brains of infected animals, resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior, loss of bodily functions, and ultimately death.

Where has CWD been found?

As of February 2016, CWD has been found in Alberta, Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, Saskatchewan, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming (see map).

Does CWD exist in Virginia?

Yes. As of February 2016, thirteen positive cases of CWD have been confirmed in Virginia. The first case of CWD was discovered in a female deer killed by a hunter in November 2009 on private land in Frederick County. The second confirmed case was found during the 2010 hunting season, in a male deer harvested less than two miles away from the first positive. In 2011, a buck and a doe tested positive for CWD. Both deer were again within a mile of the previous positives. During the 2012 hunting season, a fifth case of CWD was diagnosed in a buck killed on private land in Frederick County. Two more deer, a buck and a doe, both killed in Frederick County, tested positive for CWD during the 2013 hunting season. Three deer, all bucks, tested positive during the 2014 hunting season. One buck was Shenandoah county’s first positive case, and it was Virginia’s first road-killed positive deer. In 2015 three deer, two bucks and one doe, all from Frederick county, tested positive for CWD. For more information about CWD in West Virginia, see WVDNR’s website.

To assess the status of CWD in Virginia, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) initiated a CWD surveillance program in the fall of 2002. Between 2002 and 2014, over 9,300 samples have been collected from throughout the Commonwealth. Monitoring has included testing deer using three different surveillance approaches: (a) active random sampling of hunter-killed and road-killed deer, (b) targeted surveillance of clinical suspect (sick-looking) and high-risk animals, and (c) testing of all deer that die in captivity (a DGIF permit is required to possess any member of the deer family in Virginia, and most are held in zoos). Except for statewide sampling in 2002, 2007, and 2011, active sampling has been confined to areas in close proximity to positive cases.

For more information on tracking the spread of CWD please see our Tracking CWD in Virginia page

What causes CWD?

The infectious agent that causes CWD is an abnormally-shaped protein, called a prion, that are found in the nervous system and lymph tissues. Prions “infect” host animals by converting a normal protein to the abnormal form. The malformed prions begin to accumulate in the brain and eventually cause neurological clinical signs. Unlike bacteria or viruses, prions do not cause an immune response in the infected animals, and prions are resistant to enzymes and chemicals that normally break down proteins. For more information of prions please see the What Are Prions? page.

How is CWD spread?

CWD is spread both directly (animal-to-animal contact) and indirectly (soil or other surface to animal). Prions are likely shed through the saliva, feces, and urine of infected deer. Prions can remain infective in soil for several years.

Areas in close proximity to CWD-positives locales, areas with concentrations of captive deer and elk, and areas that have received deer and elk from CWD-infected areas may be at higher risk for introduction of the disease. Since a possible mode of CWD transmission is by the importation of infected carcasses, a number of states and provinces (including Virginia) have adopted some form of carcass transportation regulations. Furthermore, deer feeding and rehabilitation of deer may increase the prevalence and spread of the disease once present, thus both practices have been banned in certain areas of Virginia.

How can you tell if a deer has CWD?

In early stages of infection, animals do not show any symptoms. In fact, most deer with CWD do not appear sick. The incubation period can range from 1-5 years. In later stages, infected animals begin to display abnormal behavior such as staggering, carrying the head and ears lowered, drooling, losing their fear of humans, and standing with an exaggerated wide-base stance. Animals at the end stages of the disease may have poor hair coats and appear emaciated, or starving. Clinical symptoms are typically not seen in deer less than 16 months of age. Some CWD symptoms may also be characteristic of diseases or conditions other than CWD (e.g., bacterial brain abscesses, hemorrhagic disease, or normal spring and fall hair shedding).

How is CWD diagnosed?

The only USDA-approved method of CWD diagnosis is examination of the obex (a specific part of the brain) or retropharyngeal lymph nodes in a laboratory using either immunohistochemistry (IHC) or an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA). There is no practical, validated, and USDA-approved live-animal test for cervids, and there is no vaccine or treatment for CWD.

What should I do if I see a deer that shows CWD symptoms?

Do not attempt to contact, disturb, kill, or remove the animal. You should accurately document the location of the animal and immediately contact VDGIF via the Virginia Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 855-571-9003.

Can CWD infect livestock or other wildlife?

There is no evidence that CWD can be naturally transmitted to livestock, pets, or humans. Susceptibility of exotic deer species (e.g., fallow deer, reindeer, muntjac, etc.) remains unknown.

Is CWD dangerous to humans?

There currently is no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans. However, public health officials recommend that human exposure to the CWD agent be avoided as they continue to evaluate the potential risk, if any.

What precautions should I take as a deer hunter?

The VDGIF advises hunters to follow these simple recommendations:

  • Do not shoot, handle, or consume any animal that is abnormal or appears to be sick.
  • Wear latex or rubber gloves when field dressing your deer.
  • Bone out meat from your deer.
  • Do not saw through bone and avoid cutting through the brain or spinal cord (backbone).
  • Minimize handling of brain, spinal tissues, or fluids.
  • Wash hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing is completed.
  • Avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils, and lymph nodes of deer. Normal field dressing, coupled with boning out a carcass, will remove most, if not all, of these body parts.
  • If you have your deer commercially processed, request that your animal be processed individually, without meat from other animals being added.

Is it possible to have the deer I kill this season tested for CWD?

If you submit a deer for sampling in the CWD Containment Area at a designated CWD check station or refrigerator drop point and provide the appropriate information, VDGIF will test if for CWD. However, it is important to remember that the CWD test is designed for surveillance purposes and is not a food safety test. We recommend all hunters follow the simple precautions outlined above.

Within a few weeks after the sample is taken, results will be posted on the VDGIF CWD Results website. You will be able to access your results using the number you were given when the sample was taken. If you submit a deer that tests positive for CWD, you will be notified by VDGIF as soon as possible following confirmation.

What should I do if I find out a deer or elk I killed in another state had CWD?

Many states have CWD testing programs. If you are notified that a deer or elk you killed in another state tested positive for CWD, and you have brought any part of the carcass back to Virginia, you are required to contact VDGIF within 72 hours. VDGIF may take possession of any imported carcass or carcass parts from a CWD positive animal.

What about importing deer carcasses into Virginia from other states?

Virginia’s carcass transportation regulation prohibits the importation or possession of whole deer, elk, or moose carcasses or specified parts of carcasses originating from any area designated by the Department as a carcass-restriction zone (see table below for a list of carcass restriction zones). However, the following carcass parts are allowed:

  • Boned out meat that is cut and wrapped (either commercially or privately).
  • Quarters or other portions of meat with no part of the spinal column or head attached.
  • Hides and capes with no heads attached.
  • Clean (no meat or tissue attached) skull plates with or without antlers attached.
  • Clean (no meat or tissue attached) skulls with or without antlers attached.
  • Antlers with no meat or tissue attached.
  • Upper canine teeth, also known as “buglers,” “whistlers,” or “ivories.”
  • Finished taxidermy products.

A legible label shall be affixed to packages or containers holding the allowed carcass parts with the following information: the species of animal, the state or province from where the animal originated, and the name and address of the person who killed or owned the animal.

The following U.S. states, portions of states, and Canadian provinces are designated as CWD carcass-restriction zones.

  • Any enclosure in North America intended to confine deer or elk
  • Alberta (entire province)
  • Arkansas (entire state)
  • Colorado (entire state)
  • Illinois (entire state)
  • Iowa (entire state)
  • Kansas (entire state)
  • Maryland (Allegany County)
  • Michigan (entire state)
  • Minnesota (entire state)
  • Missouri (entire state)
  • Montana (entire state)
  • Nebraska (entire state)
  • New Mexico (entire state)
  • New York (entire state)
  • North Dakota (entire state)
  • Ohio (entire state)
  • Oklahoma (entire state)
  • Pennsylvania (entire state)
  • Saskatchewan (entire province)
  • South Dakota (entire state)
  • Texas (entire state)
  • Utah (entire state)
  • West Virginia (Hampshire, Hardy, and Morgan Counties)
  • Wisconsin (entire state)
  • Wyoming (entire state)

What about taking deer carcasses out of Virginia?

Virginia is a CWD-positive state, therefore deer hunters must follow carcass importation regulations in home states when they transport a deer carcass out of Virginia (see CWD Alliance website). Restrictions for nearby states are as follows:

  • Kentucky and North Carolina: Carcasses from anywhere in Virginia must be boned-out or quartered so the brain and spinal cord are removed.
  • Maryland, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia: whole deer carcasses are allowed except those originating Virginia’s CWD Containment Area (Frederick, Clarke, Warren, and Shenandoah Counties), where carcasses must be boned-out or quartered so the brain and spinal cord are removed.

What is the difference between CWD and Hemorrhagic Disease (HD)? Why does VDGIF seem to be more concerned about CWD than HD?

The biggest difference between HD and CWD is the fact that HD has been a yearly occurrence in Virginia for over 50 years and the epizoology of the disease is therefore predictable; Virginia typically has a significant epizootic, or outbreak, of HD about every five years, in predictable areas, and then VDGIF receives sporadic reports of presumptive HD-related deaths for a few consecutive years, and then another epizootic occurs. In the long run, deer populations are not permanently negatively affected by HD. Epizootics of HD may, however, lead to significantly decreased localized harvest in heavily hit areas in the year of the epizootic, due to large numbers of HD-related deaths. However, some deer don’t become infected with the virus and other deer that get infected survive the infection. Because deer cannot spread the infection amongst themselves (spread of the disease requires the presence of a midge that “carries” the virus from infected deer to non-infected deer), deer that survive the infection do not a pose a risk to healthy deer. In heavily hit areas, deer observed in the woods may be fewer in number the year or two following an epizootic, but they typically rebound to previous levels within two or three years. HD is considered in the context of the next one or two hunting seasons.

Chronic wasting disease, on the other hand, is not a disease that hits hard periodically and then allows a population to recover. CWD epizoology does not involve an insect vector; CWD is transmitted directly from infected deer to healthy deer and indirectly via environmental contamination with the infectious agent that causes CWD (shed into the environment by infected deer). CWD is not as well-understood as HD, therefore the effect(s) that CWD may have on the long-term health and viability of an infected deer population is not known. As a result of the questions surrounding the long-term effects of CWD (as compared to the more predictable short-term effects of HD), many state and federal wildlife management agencies are very conservative in their approach to CWD detection and management. Furthermore, once CWD becomes established in a wild deer population, it is very difficult to eradicate. CWD is considered in the context of the hunting experience of future generations.

Is it OK to use deer urine-based scents to attract deer?

No. Effective July 1, 2015, it will be illegal to possess or use deer scents/lures that contain natural deer urine or other bodily fluids while taking, attempting to take, attracting, or scouting wildlife in Virginia. A bottle of “deer urine” may contain disease agents harbored by captive deer living hundreds of miles away that were used to collect the infected urine. The most significant threat to Virginia’s deer populations from the use of urine-based scents is the introduction of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) into new areas. Synthetic products that can be used to lure deer without the disease risks are readily available at sporting goods stores and from multiple online retailers. Read more ยป

What is being done about CWD in Virginia?

VDGIF continually updates its CWD Response Plan (PDF) that guides response actions, surveillance efforts, and management actions when CWD is found in or near Virginia. VDGIF monitors CWD status in other states, continues to stay up-to-date on novel published CWD findings, continues to closely regulate captive deer in Virginia, and regularly provides accurate and timely information about CWD to deer hunters and the general public.

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Due to the detection of CWD in Frederick County in 2009, VDGIF implemented a number of measures to protect Virginia’s deer herd, effective April 2010. The following measures were taken to help slow and contain the spread of CWD. All measures outlined below apply to the CWD Containment Area located in Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah, and Warren Counties (see map). Hunting season changes and a year-round ban on deer feeding also apply.

  1. All deer killed by hunters within the CWD Containment Area on the first two Saturdays of the regular firearms season must be brought to a designated sampling station for CWD testing:
    • Hunters can still check their deer via telephone or Internet but must bring the deer to a designated CWD sampling station on these specified dates.
    • We strongly encourage hunters who are successful on days other than those listed above to volunteer the head and approximately 4 inches of neck from their deer for sampling by bringing it to one of our self-service refrigerated drop stations.
    • For designated sampling stations and other updates, please check this web page and look for press releases before hunting season.
  2. Whole deer carcasses and high-risk carcass parts cannot be transported out of the CWD Containment Area, except:
    • Deer parts currently allowed under the carcass importation ban (i.e., see complete list above)
  3. Three hunting season changes apply to private lands in Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren counties and the City of Winchester:
    • Two deer daily bag limit
    • With the exception of Shenandoah County, Earn-A-Buck is in effect, meaning at least one antlerless deer must be taken on private lands before the second antlered deer of the license year may be taken on private lands
    • Full season either sex in early and late muzzleloading seasons on private lands in Shenandoah County
    • No change for public lands in any of these counties
  4. Feeding of deer is prohibited year round in Clarke, Frederick, Shenandoah, and Warren counties and the City of Winchester.
    • Elsewhere in Virginia, it is unlawful to distribute food, minerals, carrion or similar substances to feed or attract deer from September 1 through the first Saturday in January. This prohibition does not include the planting of wildlife food plots.
  5. Rehabilitation is prohibited for any deer that originates from within the CWD Containment Area.
    • Rehabilitation of adult deer is prohibited through Virginia.

How can I find out more about CWD?

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