December 2009
From the State Vet's Office

Monitoring for CWD in Deer and Other Cervids

In veterinary medicine, we use a lot of acronyms (the first letter of each word). BSE, FMD, FVRCP and on and on and on. The acronym CWD stands for Chronic Wasting Disease. CWD is a disease affecting cervids which includes deer and elk. In Alabama we are mainly interested in whitetail deer. We do not have mule deer and elk native to our state. CWD is caused by a prion and is in the group of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies—TSEs. Some other diseases in that group are bovine spongioform encephalopathy, transmissible mink encephalopathy and, one of my favorites, fatal familial insomnia. Fatal familial insomnia is apparently an inherited genetic disorder in which the results of the prion being formed in the brain results in a condition of total sleeplessness that eventually becomes fatal. It actually only affects 28 families worldwide. That seems like an absolutely horrible way to go. But on the other hand, I suppose you could get a lot done before you die since you don’t have to take time out to sleep! Anyway you can see, even though the incidence of these diseases is quite low, they are pretty bad characters.

CWD is a disease of deer and other cervids, and is not known to cross into humans at all. But when has that ever stopped mass hysteria when the news media is having a slow day and gets onto something like that? Other states have reaped the adverse results of reporting CWD existence within their borders. All you have to do is mention CWD was found in a deer and, all at once, nobody wants to hunt and certainly nobody wants to consume deer meat.

The hunting industry is huge in Alabama. Each year hundreds of Alabama deer hunters harvest thousands of Alabama deer. This provides quite an economic boost to our state. We certainly do not want anything like CWD to threaten this great industry. For that reason, we at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, along with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, have implemented measures to monitor for the presence of CWD in our deer population. This is done through surveillance of hunter-harvested deer through sampling of brain tissue as well as allowing whitetail game breeders to implement CWD monitoring plans. These monitoring plans require annual inventory be kept. The owners of these captive deer benefit by having the ability to sell and ship deer to other states.

There is an old saying: if you don’t want to find something, you shouldn’t look for it. That may be true, but I do not want something to be out there sneaking up on us. It is not likely we have CWD in Alabama because the disease has not been found anywhere in the states near ours. However, when you are dealing with a wildlife disease, you cannot just have a regulation that we do not allow wild animals with CWD to come into our state. There are regulations from the Department of Conservation and Wildlife prohibiting native wildlife like whitetail deer to be purchased and brought into the state. But if you ask any deer on the street, they cannot tell the difference of whether they are captive or wild—at least not by looking at them.

While doing some research for this article, I ran across a website for a group called the CWD Alliance. They consisted of the Boone and Crocket Club, Mule Deer Foundation and The Rocky Mountain Elk Association. It was very interesting to me that their mission is much the same as ours. That is to make sure the information put out is accurate and to control the disease —- if it should show up. Just be aware we are monitoring for a disease that has not made it into our borders, but it is out there.

One final bit of advice: we are professionals, so do not try to do this on your own. And certainly, if you get caught out some night shining a big light on deer, do not try telling the game warden you are monitoring for CWD!