Chronic Wasting Disease FAQs

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a member of the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) family of diseases that includes Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease in cattle; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans; and Scrapie in sheep and goats. It was first recognized in Colorado deer and elk in 1967. The specific cause of CWD is believed to be an abnormal prion (protein infectious particle) that is found in the brain, the nervous system, and some lymphoid tissues of infected animals. It causes death of brain cells and, on a microscopic level, holes in the brain tissue.

Is CWD dangerous to humans?
There is no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans or traditional livestock. However, it is recommended that meat from CWD-positive animals not be consumed.

Where has CWD been found?
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been detected in three locations in Pennsylvania: a captive deer farm in Adams County (Fall 2012); free-ranging deer in Blair and Bedford counties (2012 - 2014 firearms season ); and a captive deer farm in Jefferson county (Spring 2014). In addition, CWD has been in wild or captive deer and/or elk in many other states and provinces.

How is CWD spread?
CWD is transmitted both directly through animal-to-animal contact and indirectly through food and soil contaminated with bodily excretions including feces, urine and saliva. Contaminated carcasses or high-risk carcass parts may also spread the disease indirectly through environmental contamination, which last for decades

What is being done to manage CWD in Pennsylvania? Several state and federal agencies, including the Game Commission, Pennsylvania departments of Agriculture (PDA), Health (PDH), and Environmental Protection (DEP), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) completed a response plan which details methods of prevention, surveillance and response designed to manage CWD. Activities designed to reduce the risks associated with this disease are ongoing. Surveillance for CWD and other diseases has been ongoing in Pennsylvania since 1998 and will continue in order to understand the prevalence and distribution of the disease.

How can I tell if a deer or elk has CWD?
Animals infected with CWD do not show signs of infection for 12 or more months. Late stage symptoms of CWD-infected animals include an extreme loss of body condition; excessive drinking, urination, salivation and drooling; and behavioral and neurologic changes such as repetitive walking patterns, droopy ears, a wide-based stance and listlessness. Some animals lose their fear of humans and predators. There is no known cure. It is important to note that these symptoms are characteristic of diseases other than CWD.

What should I do if I see a deer or elk displaying signs that suggest CWD?
If you see a deer or elk that you believe is sick, do not disturb or attempt to kill or remove the animal. Accurately document the location of the animal and immediately contact the nearest Game Commission region office.

What are high-risk carcass parts?
High-risk carcass parts, where the CWD prion (causative agent) concentrates are: head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and all lymph nodes); spinal cord and smaller nerves; spleen; upper canine teeth, if root structure is present; any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord material; unfinished taxidermy mounts or brain-tanned hides.

Why are there restrictions on the movement of high-risk parts?
Although CWD has been detected in both captive and free ranging deer, the Game Commission's goal continues to be to prevent further introductions of CWD into our state and to prevent spread within the state. The movement of high-risk carcass parts (brain, spinal cord, lymphoid tissues) is a potential avenue through which CWD could be spread. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have developed regulations to prohibit the importation of high-risk carcass parts from CWD endemic states and provinces. Pennsylvania's importation ban prohibits the importation of high-risk carcass parts from these areas. Those hunting within Pennsylvania's CWD-positive areas are also subject to high-risk parts movement restrictions. These parts may not be removed from the designated Disease Management Areas (DMAs).

What carcass parts are safe to move?
Pennsylvania's high-risk carcass parts ban does not limit the importation of: meat, without the backbone; skull plate with attached antlers, if no visible brain or spinal cord material is present; tanned hide or raw hide with no visible brain or spinal cord material present; cape, if no visible brain or spinal cord material is present; upper canine teeth, if no root structure is present; or finished taxidermy mounts. These same parts may be moved out of Pennsylvania's DMAs.

What precautions should hunters take?
Hunters should only harvest animals that appear healthy, and take common-sense precautions like wearing gloves while field dressing an animal and washing hands and equipment thoroughly when finished. Hunters in areas where CWD is known to exist should follow these guidelines to prevent the spread of the disease:

  • Do not shoot, handle or consume an animal that appears sick.
  • Wear rubber or nitrile gloves when field dressing.
  • Bone out the meat from your animal.
  • Minimize the handling of brain and spinal tissues.
  • Wash hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing.
  • Ask your deer processor to process your meat individually or process your own meat.
  • Have your animal processed in the area of the state where it was harvested so high-risk body parts can be properly disposed of. It is illegal to take high-risk parts listed in the Cervid Parts Importation Ban out of any Pennsylvania DMA.
  • Do not import high-risk parts from other states where CWD is known to exist. High-risk parts are described in the Cervid Parts Importation Ban.
  • Transport out of any Pennsylvania DMA, or bring back to Pennsylvania only low-risk parts: meat without the backbone, skull plate with attached antlers if no visible brain or spinal cord material is present, tanned hide or raw hide with no visible brain or spinal cord material present, cape if no visible brain or spinal cord material is present upper canine teeth if no root structure or other soft material is present, and finished taxidermy mounts. If you plan to hunt in CWD-positive areas, and want to avoid transporting parts that are banned, take a moment to view this video.
  • Don't consume high-risk parts. Normal field-dressing, coupled with boning out a carcass, will remove most, if not all, of these body parts. Cutting away all fatty tissue will remove remaining lymph nodes.
  • Have your animal tested, and do not consume meat from any animal that tests positive for the disease.

Where can I have my deer tested?
Hunters can submit their harvested deer to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) for testing at a cost of $77.00 using their Chronic Wasting Disease Submission Form.

Is the meat of a CWD positive deer safe to eat?
There is no evidence that under natural conditions CWD affects any species other than those in the deer family. However, as a precaution, hunters are advised to not eat meat from animals known to be infected with CWD.

What if I harvest a deer with evidence of being ear tagged?
Hunters should immediately notify the nearest Game Commission region office if their harvested deer has evidence of being tagged; this could be actual ear tags, torn ears, or holes in the ears. This may indicate an escape from a captive cervid facility.

What if I hunt in an area affected by CWD?
Hunters should continue to enjoy deer and elk hunting in Pennsylvania. However, with the discovery of CWD, hunters should become familiar with the restrictions in any Executive Order for any designated Disease Management Area (DMA) such as prohibitions on feeding and rehabilitation of deer, the use of urine-based lures, and transportation out of the DMA of specific cervid carcass parts. If you plan to hunt in another state where CWD has been found, contact that state's wildlife agency for guidance and be aware that Pennsylvania has a Cervid Parts Importation Ban for these areas.

What if I'm hunting outside Pennsylvania?
Hunters are encouraged to contact state wildlife agencies where they plan to hunt, for more information on the status of CWD in that state. Most states have up-to-date information on the status of CWD in their state on their websites. The Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance is also a reliable online resource.

What do Processors and Taxidermists need to know?
If you are presented with a deer or elk harvested in CWD-infected areas, please contact the nearest Game Commission region office for guidance. A Game Commission representative may collect tissues, provide proper processing and disposal procedures, and supply information to educate hunters. Additional information is available for processors and taxidermists.

Is feeding deer ok?
Because any concentration of deer or elk assists in the spread of diseases, immediately stop supplemental feeding programs. For more information, read Please Don't Feed the Deer. (.pdf)

Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Ave, Harrisburg Pennsylvania 17110-9797