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Join us as Taylor explains why Chronic Wasting Disease is such a challenging and scary disease for animals in the deer family. By sharing what we know with others, we hope to find new ways to help as many animals as possible!

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Hi everyone!

Welcome back to Animal Wonders. My name is Taylor, and this is Gaia the armadillo.

She's one of my animal friend who's gonna help me talk about a difficult subject, Chronic Wasting Disease. The reason it’s a difficult subject is because it doesn’t exactly make you feel good. And when we’re faced with a challenging situation, I think it’s best to learn as much as we can about it so we can find ways to create the best good overall.

And the more minds we have working on something, the better chance we have of making great things happen. [CHEERY INTRO MUSIC]. Every year, Animal Wonders gets a lot of calls and messages from people who are concerned about an animal that they have found. Usually about animals that are sick, seemingly abandoned, or injured.

And while we love that our community is full of people who are passionate about animals and their well-being, Animal Wonders is not a rehabilitation center. So we can only take in animals that have gone to a wildlife rehab center and been deemed non-releasable by a veterinarian. What we can do is help them assess the animal’s condition and refer them to a wildlife agency if it’s in the best interest for the animal.

Sometimes it’s really best for the animal to be left alone, and human interference is only going to make things worse. This is especially true when the situation involves a deer. Before trying to help a deer at all, it is so important to call your local wildlife agency right away because that deer could be carrying the highly transmissible disease called Chronic Wasting Disease or CWD.

So what’s so bad about Chronic Wasting Disease? Well, it gets complicated pretty quickly. CWD is considered a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy or TSE.

A TSE is a rare disease that affects the neurological system, brain and spine and causes degeneration of the nervous system. The problem is that they often don’t trigger an immune response in your body. They tend to go undetected by the immune system because they're triggered by misfolded proteins called prions.

Unfortunately, since the prion protein is naturally occurring in the body, prions aren’t viewed as an outside or foreign object that your body needs to attack or get rid of. So the body doesn’t form an immune response to fight them off. And then, when the prions encounter a normal protein in a cell, they'll cause that protein to fold incorrectly as well.

This leads to more and more prions building up inside cells, and this will disrupt normal cell functions. If you want to learn more about prions, check out this episode of SciShow. The take home message about TSEs like Chronic Wasting Disease is that they're fatal because the prions are located in the brain and degrade the nervous system.

Some TSEs you may have heard of before include Mad Cow Disease or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in cattle, scrapie in goats and sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease in humans. So now that we know what type of disease Chronic Wasting Disease is, let’s talk about how it affects our wildlife. CWD can infect members of the deer (or cervid) family, including: white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose, and reindeer, in parts of.

Canada and the United States. I’ve personally had to be on alert for CWD in wildlife since it affects animals in my home state of Ohio as well as Montana where. Animal Wonders is located.

I also spent a summer in Wisconsin interning at a wildlife rehabilitation center, and it was a major concern. Thankfully there were no cases in the county we were in, but we had to be very careful not to accept any deer from counties that had reported cases. CWD isn't just close to home, though.

In Norway, cases have been reported in reindeer, red deer, and moose. And in South Korea, there have been CWD cases with red deer and sika deer. This is a devastating disease, and studies are ongoing so scientists can learn how we can better manage it before it gets out of hand.

Scientists believe that CWD can be transmitted through bodily fluids such as saliva, urine, blood, or feces. This could be through direct contact between animals, or indirectly through water, soil, or food that's in the environment. For example, if a deer with CWD were to drink from a pond, some of the prions in its saliva could enter that pond.

Then when other animals come to drink, they could swallow those prions. Unlike many other TSEs, scientists believe that the CWD prions can last in an environment for a long time, which means it can be spread long after an infected animal has left the area. Although scientists largely agree on how CWD is spread, the course of the disease is relatively unknown.

Wild cases are hard to study because they don’t know when an animal was exposed to the disease. So most of their research is from the spread of CWD in captive populations, like deer farms. From the many studies on captive deer and elk, scientists have found that after an animal is exposed to CWD, there is an incubation period, so symptoms don't appear right away.

It can take somewhere between a year and 3 years for an infected animal to even start showing signs of the disease! Now once the animal begins to show symptoms, they've entered the clinical phase. Symptoms of CWD include behavioral and physical changes.

They tend to have poor coordination, and they're seen stumbling or walking in circles. Or standing with their feet spread wide and their head and ears hanging low. They may have tremors, or long periods of sleep or drowsiness.

Over time, their body condition deteriorates because they eat less food than they need to stay healthy. In the later stages, they tend to be found near water because they become very thirsty, which leads to a lot of drinking, which leads to excessive drooling and urinating. The clinical stage tends to last between a few weeks and several months, but there have been some cases as short as a couple days or as long as a year.

Unfortunately, there are no preventable vaccines or treatments to cure CWD, and cases always result in death. With all the symptoms, you would think it would be easy to detect CWD and remove those animals from the population, preventing further spread. But it’s not easy because CWD symptoms are similar to those caused by many other diseases.

So the animal has to be specifically tested for CWD, which is best done with the lymph nodes, spinal fluid, or brain tissue. Unfortunately, the lymph node tests are unreliable, and other tests can only be done post mortem. So scientists are having a hard time detecting affected animals before they've already died.

And to make matters even worse, scientists don’t know exactly when an infected animal becomes contagious, whether it’s just after they have been exposed or if it’s only after they start experiencing symptoms. So that's why CWD is such a difficult disease to manage in wild populations. Scientists know it exists and they're tracking where the cases occur, but the course of the disease can take years and makes research time consuming and slow.

And without being certain when an affected animal becomes contagious, they don’t know when they would need to remove an animal from a population to prevent spreading the disease. Right now scientists are working to develop tests that are more sensitive and can detect. CWD sooner in an affected animal.

But even if they're able to find these animals and remove them from the population, the prions can last in the environment even after the animal is removed. So the best management strategy right now is prevention. The movement of deer, elk, and moose, whether alive or dead, is currently considered the biggest risk for spreading CWD to new areas.

Which is where we come in as educators and you come in as informed citizens. Another big risk of spreading CWD is when large numbers of deer, elk, or other affected animals congregate. So in many states or areas with known CWD cases, salt licks and other food sources and bait are banned.

Thankfully, state and local wildlife agencies have CWD protocols that are readily available if you have questions or concerns. So you can see why Chronic Wasting Disease is a major problem. It’s spreading quickly, and scientists are doing their very best to understand it and prevent it.

So as an animal enthusiast, when you see a deer that appears to be injured, abandoned, or sick, it's extremely important that you contact your local wildlife agency before trying to move or help it. Rehabilitation centers in areas with known cases of CWD have very strict regulations on how they can help members of the deer family. As an animal enthusiast myself, I know how it feels to see an animal in need and not be able to help it.

But if you call and follow the instructions of your local wildlife agency, you'll be helping in a much bigger way. You’ll be helping slow down the spread of this terrible disease. Also, if you're a hunter, I highly encourage you to talk with your local wildlife officials before you go hunting.

Find out if there are CWD cases nearby and see if they have any recommendations for how you can help prevent its spread when you're traveling but also when you're harvesting an animal. Thankfully, there's no evidence of a human contracting CWD. However, public health officials do recommend that you avoid contact with bodily fluids of an affected animal.

So, if you hunt in an area with known cases, they recommend that you have the animal tested prior to consumption. You can contact your local wildlife agency to find out how to get it tested. Thank you for watching and learning about Chronic Wasting Disease.

It’s not an easy subject, but it’s so important to be informed about it. I am so thankful for all our fellow animal enthusiasts out there that care about wildlife and their well-being! You rock!

If you’d like to continue learning about animals, getting to know our residents, and going on adventures with us every week, be sure to subscribe and we’ll see you next week! Bye! [BOLD OUTRO MUSIC].