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 Chronic Wasting Disease: Overview


 What is Chronic Wasting Disease

Small Deer Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy that has been identified in the free-ranging and captive mule deer, white-tailed deer and elk population. The disease attacks the brains of infected deer and elk, causing the animals to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, lose bodily functions and die.This disease poses serious problems for wildlife managers, and the implications for free-ranging deer and elk are significant.


Homepage pic Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is related to a group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs). TSEs include such diseases as scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in cattle (aka Mad Cow Disease) and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease of humans and are diseases of the nervous system that result in distinctive lesions in the brain. The causative agent is believed to be a modified protein (prion). These modified proteins are typically found in nervous and lymphatic tissues, but recent experimental evidence shows prions can occur in muscle tissue of mice.

The most likely route of transmission is nose to nose. Contamination of soil by excreta from infected animals is thought to be another route of transmission, particularly among captive herds of deer and elk. However, the implication of environmental contamination in free-ranging animals is not clearly understood. Infected deer and elk can appear robust and healthy in the early stages of CWD and may take many years before they show clinical signs of the disease. The clinical signs are not unique to the disease and can be due to other conditions such as malnutrition. Currently all testing for CWD requires the microscopic examination of a specific portion of the brain. Recently, a biopsy technique for tonsilar tissues from live deer has been developed; however, this test seems to only work for white-tailed deer and mule deer but not for elk.

The incidence of CWD in wild animals is of great concern. The disease was originally described in captive animals 35 years ago in Colorado. However, over the last five years, CWD has been found in wild herds in several surrounding states and Canada. In early 2002, CWD has been detected in wild deer in South Dakota, Wisconsin and New Mexico. Researchers speculate that CWD could have been transported long distance as a result of interstate shipment of infected animals.

The recent detection of CWD in the wild white-tailed deer herd in Wisconsin is of particular concern. White-tailed deer appear more susceptible than mule deer and elk to CWD with a greater percentage of the herd becoming infected. Until now, CWD was found in white-tailed deer herds in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska where deer occur at densities of approximately 2-5 deer per square mile. In contrast in Wisconsin, deer are found at 75+ animals per square mile (conservative estimate by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources). No one knows how rapidly CWD will infect white-tailed deer at these densities or what long term affect this disease will have on a herd of this size (approximately 1.6 million animals).

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This site was developed and is maintained by NBII as a collaborative effort with the
U. S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center and the
University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

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University of Wisconsin-Madison's Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies


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