Chronic wasting disease is affecting the United States’ deer population—here’s what you need to know.

By Jenny Krane
Updated February 20, 2019

We may or may not get nostalgic and still yell "Bambi!" when we see a fawn in our yard. Even though deer are notorious for eating our favorite annuals and perennials, there's something so graceful and magical about them. Unfortunately, with the fast spread of disease among types of deer, elk, and moose, we may be seeing fewer deer around the neighborhood.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a neurogenerative disease, similar to mad cow disease, that's been affecting the deer family in the United States since it was first observed in the 1960s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this disease has been detected in 24 states as of January 2019.

About Chronic Wasting Disease

CWD is a contagious neurological disease that attacks the brains of affected animals. Some news sources are calling affected deer “zombie-like,” experiencing symptoms like drooling, stumbling, lack of coordination, aggression, and listlessness. One of the first telltale signs of the disease is extreme weight loss. Unfortunately, a cure for CWD has yet to be discovered.

Related: Deer-Resistant Garden Plan

The symptoms of CWD may not show up in affected animals until a year after contracting the disease. Heartbreakingly, many affected animals will die from other causes before CWD—like by getting hit by a car, hunted, or attacked by a predator. The disease can also spread pretty easily from animal to animal through mating, feces, urine, saliva, and pregnancy. On the bright side, there's currently no evidence that CWD can spread to humans or livestock.

The red spots identify the counties where chronic wasting disease has been found. Image courtesy of the CDC

CWD Safety Precautions

To avoid CWD altogether, it's best to err on the side of caution: Do not handle or eat meat from deer that look sick, are acting strange, or are found dead. Also, be sure to keep an eye on your pets if deer tend to hang out in your yard.

Some states have recommended or required testing when it comes to processing deer meat. Check with local public health or wildlife offices to see if you need to test your meat before eating or distributing it. Hunters out there should also wear gloves and protective gear in areas with known cases of CWD.

If you see a deer that is showing symptoms of CWD, try to document its location and contact your local state wildlife agency. Do NOT attempt to contact, disturb, kill or move the animal without professional instructions—it’s important to give these animals their space.

Related: DIY Deer Repellents to Keep Hungry Deer Away


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