Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

Recently there has been a substantial increase in the attention being paid to Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) by the media, state and federal natural resource agencies, and hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) developed this page to provide background information on CWD and explain what is being done to determine if the disease is in Florida, and if it is not, what we are doing to make sure it never gets here.

If you see a sickly, extremely skinny deer report its location to the CWD hotline, toll free (866) 293-9282.


What is Chronic Wasting Disease?

Chronic Wasting Disease is a progressive, neurological, debilitating disease that belongs to a family of diseases known as Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs). It is believed to be caused by an abnormal protein called a prion. CWD has been diagnosed in mule deer, white-tailed deer, and Rocky Mountain elk in captive herds and in the wild. Other cervids (antlered animals) may also be susceptible.

CWD attacks the brains of infected animals, causing them to become emaciated, display abnormal behavior, and lose bodily functions. CWD is a fatal disease. Clinical signs include excessive salivation and grinding of teeth, increased drinking and urination, dramatic loss of weight and body condition, poor hair coat, staggering, and finally death. Behavioral changes, including decreased interaction with other animals, listlessness, lowering of the head, blank facial expression, and repetitive walking in set patterns also may occur.

How is CWD transmitted?

Transmission of CWD occurs by direct contact with body fluids (feces, urine, saliva) or by indirect contact (contaminated environment). The prion is persistent in the environment and premises may remain infective for years. Crowding, such as in deer farms or by artificial feeding, facilitates transmission. There is no evidence that CWD can be transmitted to livestock or humans.

Where is CWD found?

CWD has been found in captive and/or free-ranging cervids in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and South Korea. In the US, the core endemic area is contiguous portions of Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska. The prevalence of CWD in this area is approximately <1% - 15% in mule deer and <1% in elk, although this varies greatly by location. Virginia and West Virginia are the only Southeastern states where CWD has been detected.  CWD has not been found in Florida.

How is CWD diagnosed?

Currently the only practical method for diagnosing CWD is through analysis of brain stem tissue or lymph nodes from dead animals. There is no practical live-animal test. A tonsilar biopsy may be done on live animals; however, this is difficult and deer have to be held until diagnosis.

How is CWD controlled in a population?

Control is extremely difficult once CWD becomes established in a natural population. This is because of the lack of a practical live-animal test, long incubation periods, and the persistence of the prion in the environment. Also, there is no vaccine or treatment once an animal gets the disease. If detected early in free-ranging populations, i.e. when prevalence is low, then eradication may be an achievable goal. This is not currently considered possible in the core endemic area; Wisconsin, however, has initiated an aggressive eradication program in the portion of the state where CWD has been found.

What steps is FWC taking to determine if CWD is in Florida, and if it is not, what is being done to keep it from getting here?

The FWC has initiated a comprehensive monitoring program to make sure CWD is not already in Florida. We are asking the general public to keep their eye out for deer showing symptoms indicative of CWD. If you see a sickly, extremely skinny deer (see photo) report its location to the CWD hotline, toll free (866) 293-9282. If you harvest such a deer, do not handle it but call the CWD hotline.  A biologist will collect the deer and take it to a lab for a necropsy. In addition, we will be collecting and testing tissue samples from hunter-killed deer during the hunting season. All CWD test results will be posted on this site as they are received. View the Florida CWD test results.

The number one objective in CWD management is to prevent it from spreading into new areas. One theoretical mode of disease transmission is through infected deer, elk or moose carcasses. Therefore, in an effort to minimize the risk of the disease spreading, Florida has adopted regulations affecting the transportation of hunter-harvested deer, elk and moose from CWD-infected states.

It is illegal to bring into Florida carcasses of any species of the family Cervidae (e.g. deer, elk and moose) from 24 states and two Canadian provinces where CWD has been detected. At this time, CWD has been detected in Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Visit the United States Department of Agriculture's External Website web site for state-to-state CWD reports.

Hunters still can bring back de-boned meat from any CWD-affected state, as well as finished taxidermy mounts, hides, skulls, antlers and teeth as long as all soft tissue has been removed. Whole, bone-in carcasses and parts are permitted to be brought back to Florida if they were harvested from non-affected CWD states.

As of 2013, it is illegal to bring live Cervids into Florida, from any state.  This rule was put into place to further protect Florida’s wild and captive deer herds.

Any illegal importations of live or hunter-harvested cervids should be reported to 1-888-404-FWCC.

Public health and wildlife officials advise hunters to take the following precautions when pursuing or handling deer that may have been exposed to CWD:

  • Do not shoot, handle or consume any animal that is acting abnormally or appears to be sick. Contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) toll free at (866) 293-9282, if you see or harvest an animal that appears sick.
  • Wear latex or rubber gloves when field dressing your deer.
  • Bone out the meat from your animal. Don't saw through bone, and avoid cutting through the brain or spinal cord (backbone).
  • Minimize the handling of brain and spinal tissues.
  • Wash hands and instruments thoroughly after field dressing is completed.
  • Avoid consuming brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen, tonsils and lymph nodes of harvested animals. (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.)
  • Avoid consuming the meat from any animal that tests positive for the disease.
  • If you have your deer commercially processed, request that your animal is processed individually, without meat from other animals being added to meat from your animal.

For additional information on Chronic Wasting Disease check out these sites:

USDA - Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services

USGS - National Wildlife Health Center

Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance

Other FWC Resources:

Florida Monitoring Program 2002-2009

FWC Facts:
The Nature Conservancy's Jay Watch program needs your help! Jay Watch volunteers assist with monitoring populations of the endemic scrub-jay and scrub vegetation conditions.

Learn More at AskFWC