Virginia Tech wildlife experts investigate spread of ‘zombie deer disease’

A whitetail deer afflicted with chronic wasting disease, also known as “zombie deer disease,” will appear abnormally thin, move slowly, and salivate excessively. There is no cure: chronic wasting disease (CWD) is contagious and always fatal, and has been detected with increasing frequency in Virginia and other states, raising concerns about the effects on the deer population .

Virginia Tech professor and wildlife health expert Luis Escobar will lead a study to determine the risk of CWD transmission in Virginia. He answered questions about the disease, what the study will do, and how it will be funded.

Q: Where has chronic wasting been detected?

“In North America, species known to be susceptible to natural infection include elk, white-tailed deer, mule deer, black-tailed deer, elk, and red deer, which is not native to the continent. All of these are mammals of the deer family, or cervids. In the US, chronic wasting has been detected in free-range cervids in 29 states. In Virginia, chronic wasting disease has been reported in white-tailed deer in the northern and southwestern areas of the commonwealth.”

Q: How is chronic wasting disease spread and what are the symptoms?

“CWD is caused by infectious proteins that cause fatal neurodegenerative diseases. Infected deer can transmit the pathogen by direct contact, for example through saliva, or by contamination of the environment. As examples, infected feces or urine or an infected carcass can contaminate the pasture. Transmission can occur before symptoms appear, as early as six months after infection. The infection causes hyperexcitability or increased activity in the early stages. Advanced symptoms include severe weight loss, excessive salivation, behavioral changes such as decreased activity, and weakness followed by death.

Q: How serious is the threat? to the white-tailed deer population?

“Some studies suggest a major potential threat to wildlife conservation from deer mortality and effects on genetic diversity in CWD-affected populations. Efforts to prevent the spread of the disease include regular culling, which could affect deer abundance in affected regions, but appears to be effective.”

Q: What research will your team do on the spread of chronic wasting?

“Thanks in part to a $30,000 donation from Virginia Hound Heritage, our team, which includes Virginia Tech professor of deer ecology and animal movement Brett Jesmer, will be able to conduct extensive research on the risk of transmission of CWD in Virginia. The goal of this project is to estimate the routes, direction, and extent of the future spread of CWD in white-tailed deer. The team will use molecular tools to generate information about the potential spread of the disease in unprecedented detail in Virginia.”

Q: Can humans or pets get CWD?

“To date, chronic wasting disease has only been found in white-tailed deer and other cervids.”

About Escobar
Luis Escobar, an assistant professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, conducts research focused on applying ecology and epidemiology to study the distribution of infectious diseases in fish and wildlife. His lab explores methods to investigate the links between global change and the emergence of disease. He has won awards for his research, which has included studying the transmission of diseases from vampire bats to other species in Colombia and studying the effects of the tuberculosis vaccine on COVID-19. Read more about him here.