Should You Eat a Deer with Chronic Wasting Disease? It Depends

Dec 3, 2018

A dozen bucks hang from a pole at deer camp.
Credit WI Dept. of Natural Resources

Should you eat the meat of a deer with Chronic Wasting Disease?

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist shares some information to help those facing this difficult question decide for themselves.

In the course of my day job, I get a lot of questions, some of which are frequently repeated, but they rarely yield a useful answer. Normally I have to respond with “It depends.” In fact, most of the questions I get throughout the year are quite situational. “what should I do about the dead deer floating in the water by my dock?” Well, it depends. “Is it legal to feed wildlife in my yard?” Well, it depends. Now, with the number of Chronic Wasting Disease positives in the wild and inside fenced deer farms seems to have fanned the flames of interest in the disease that has been documented further south in Wisconsin for almost 20 years now. A common question I get is “should I eat my deer?” or “what should I do if my deer comes back positive for CWD? Eat it or pitch it?”

I never tell anyone what they should or should not do. I am not a physician, or an expert on diseases. I am an expert on the management of wildlife species and their habitat. The rest is all part of management, to be sure, but my breadth and scope of knowledge is driven necessarily by concern for wildlife first. I’ll give you information that will hopefully help you make an informed decision for yourself, based on the best available science, but the rest is up to you.

Chronic Wasting Disease is bad. It eats holes into the brains of its victims. The deer, elk, moose, and reindeer that contract this disease basically become zombies. This disease causes them to starve themselves, drool excessively, feel unquenchable thirst, and die a terrible death. This disease is 100% fatal. Once the clinical signs are outwardly visible, the animal will typically die in 6 months to two years. While there have been some indications that there are some deer that have a genetic resistance to CWD, it is a resistance to contracting the disease. Once they contract it, they die just like any other deer. The mutated protein, or prion, is transmissible through contact with body fluids. In the years it may take to die, an animal can shed a lot of prions across the landscape in saliva, feces, urine and blood. You are most likely to find it in the central nervous system, like the brain and spinal column. When an animal dies, as it decomposes, the prion is left behind and can persist for up to two years in the soil.

What about human health? There has never been a documented case of a human developing the human variant, Creutzfeld-Jacobs Disease, from eating meat from an infected animal. However, there have been indications from studies that it is possible for the prion to infect other mammals, including primates and mice. There is no treatment for CJD; it is a fatal neurological disease like CWD.

I can tell you that you should take every precaution when harvesting and processing your deer. Wear gloves, avoid severing the spine or brain case, and take good care of the meat. If you have your deer tested, you will be notified if the test comes back positive. When it comes to whether or not you should eat your deer, that’s up to you. The next question I get from people then is “what would you do? Would you eat it or pitch it?” The fact is, I haven’t been confronted with that decision yet. However, the CDC recommends not eating the meat from an animal that has Chronic Wasting Disease. When it comes down to it, I take every possible precaution to keep my family safe when eating wild game. I use non-toxic shot. I carefully eviscerate and process the meat. I cut out any parasites or cysts. I carefully wrap and package the meat before freezing. I cook it to a safe internal temperature. None of these precautions have an impact on CWD. If our deer comes back positive for CWD, it will be landfilled with the rest of the carcass. But I hope that doesn’t happen.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.

The above photo from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources can be found online here.