Virginia wildlife experts investigating spread of 'zombie deer disease'

Wildlife experts in Virginia are investigating the spread of "zombie deer disease," an infection that is contagious and always fatal that has been detected with increasing frequency in Virginia and other states.

A white-tailed deer afflicted with chronic wasting disease, also frequently referred to as "zombie deer disease," will appear abnormally thin, move sluggishly and salivate excessively. There is no cure, raising concerns about its effects on the deer population.

In North America, species known to be susceptible to natural infection include elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, moose, and the red deer. It has not been found in humans or pets.

Infected deer can transmit the pathogen by direct contact including through saliva or by contaminating the environment. Examples include infected feces or urine or an infected carcass that can contaminate grass.

The infection causes hyperexcitability, or increased activity, in the early stages. Advanced symptoms include severe loss of weight, excessive salivation, behavioral changes such as decreased activity, and weakness followed by death, according to wildlife experts.

Virginia Tech professor and wildlife health expert Luis Escobar will be leading a study to determine the risk of CWD transmission in Virginia. 

"Thanks in part to a $30,000 gift from Virginia Hound Heritage, our team, which includes Virginia Tech professor of deer ecology and animal movement Brett Jesmer, will be able to undertake an extensive investigation into CWD transmission risk across Virginia," says Escobar. "The goal of this project is to estimate the paths, direction, and extent of future CWD spread in white-tailed deer. The team will use molecular tools to generate information of likely spread of the disease in unprecedented detail in Virginia."