Home Health News ‘Zombie’ deer disease: Why deer with CWD are actually nothing like zombies – USA TODAY

‘Zombie’ deer disease: Why deer with CWD are actually nothing like zombies – USA TODAY

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Many hunters and wildlife experts have found the latest headlines around the “zombie” deer disease bizarre, as they say chronic wasting disease has been around for years — and they wouldn’t describe infected animals as “zombies.”

In fact, many infected deer don’t even reach the final stage of the disease, where they show symptoms (stumbling, drooling, extreme weight loss), said Lindsay Thomas Jr., director of communications for the Quality Deer Management Association, a wildlife conservation organization. 

He said it’s “baffling” to think of a deer dying from CWD as a frightening “zombie.” He instead compares the disease to dementia, as infected animals appear more confused than threatening. 

While the term could give the general public the wrong impression about CWD, 
Krysten Schuler, wildlife disease ecologist and co-director at the Cornell Wildlife Health Lab, said the disease is “a big problem” and she’s glad more people are paying attention to it. People just need to be properly informed, she said.

CWD, which is fatal to all deer that contract it, was first identified in the 1960s, and is now in 24 states across the nation. It’s a serious infectious disease in animals, but likely won’t spark an apocalypse. 

Here’s why:

Many appear totally normal.

Infected deer could easily die from another cause (killed by a predator or car) before they show CWD symptoms such as drooling, listlessness and low weight, Thomas said. Deer, elk and moose with the disease might appear healthy for up to two years, as neurological symptoms develop slowly, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance. Symptoms usually only show during the last few months before death.

“You cannot eyeball a deer and say if it has CWD,” Thomas said, noting that hunters have shot infected animals, believing they are healthy, only to find out through testing that their deer has CWD. 

They probably won’t attack.

Deer with CWD aren’t going to eat your brains. They actually have holes in their brains that might cause them to be less coordinated and have trouble walking, Thomas said. Deer in the final stage of CWD could also appear weak, and underweight. 

While hunters should be aware if the disease is prominent in their area, there’s no need to fear “zombie” deer and avoid hunting, Schuler said. If anything, people who spot a sickly deer should call local wildlife officials so that the deer can be tested, she said.

More: ‘Zombie’ deer disease is in 24 states and thousands of infected deer are eaten each year, expert warns

None have infected humans.

There have never been any reported cases of CWD in humans. But, studies have shown it can be transmitted to animals other than deer, moose and elk, according to the Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told USA TODAY that it’s possible humans could contract the disease in the future. So, it is important to take precautions in infected areas. The most likely way humans could become infected is if they eat infected deer meat, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. Here are a few ways people can avoid CWD. 

More: CWD: What is it, and could it affect humans?

More: ‘Zombie’ deer disease: How to prevent it and avoid eating infected meat

Follow Ashley May on Twitter: @AshleyMayTweets

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