SAMUEL: Some external signs of deer problems


Periodically I get emails from readers who have seen a deer that just doesn’t look normal. They write because they want to know the cause.

Let me start with the most unique and unusual problem. A month ago, I got an email from a hunter who found a shed antler, but there was some bone attached to the bottom of the antler where it attaches to the skull. Research done on the eastern shore of Maryland shows 10% of the natural mortality (excludes hunting) of all older bucks is caused by something called intracranial abscessation. Intracranial abscessation is a bacterial infection of the brain that leads to deterioration of the skull near the point of antler attachment. Skin abrasions allow the bacteria to enter and then it erodes the bone. Once inside the skull, an abscess forms and infection leads to the death of the buck.

In the case described, the bone erodes so much that the antler breaks off of the skull leaving exposure to the brain. Obviously, this then leads to the death of the buck. It’s believed that it happens more to older bucks because of the damage they do to each other while fighting during the rut.

Last year, a hunter shot a deer near the Ohio River. It had irregularly shaped, chipped, and broken hooves. He described one hoof as looking like our fingernails if we don’t trim them. Long, curved, and chipped. The cause of this is simple. This deer survived an infection from hemorrhagic disease. That viral disease (commonly called EHD) is caused by a biting midge, and deer that get it die rather quickly. However, some hang on and survive, and while doing that their hooves stop growing (yes, the hoof grows and is worn down by normal walking and running. Similar to the claws on your dog). Once the hoof starts growing again, it will not grow normally. If a deer had a lesser case of hemorrhagic disease, the hooves won’t look bad. But if it had a bad case, you may find its carcass in winter with crazy-looking hooves, or a hunter might shoot a survivor of EHD with abnormal appearing hooves.

Another common email question involves a hunter seeing a live deer that is skinny and appears sick. They want to know if the deer has chronic wasting disease (CWD). The answer is that it might, but if that deer is from West Virginia, unless it’s from the Hardy or Hampshire County area, it does not have CWD. The Eastern Panhandle is the only place in West Virginia where we have CWD, so a thin, sick-looking deer from another part of the state has an obvious problem, but it isn’t CWD.

The most common question I get is about black or brown colored external tumors found on a living deer. People that feed deer, get close looks at lots of animals and they are the ones that usually raise questions. These wart-like growths are called fibromas and are usually caused by an infection with a species-specific papillomavirus. Fibromas can occur anywhere on a deer’s body but are most common around the head and neck. They rarely cause death and unless very abundant, they don’t affect a deer. Fibromas are usually found in younger deer and about 1% of deer may get them.

The most common question I get about these fibromas is, “Can I eat the meat?” Just skin the deer as you normally would and the fibromas stay attached to the hide. The meat is perfectly fine.

Deer are like all mammals. Things go wrong, they get diseases, and most live, but some die. And yes, deer can get COVID-19, and serve as reservoirs for that disease. What this means for hunters is not known, but chances are it means very little. (Just in case, wear rubber gloves when field dressing a deer.) Lots of mammals are reservoirs for diseases that humans can get, but with some precautions, we rarely do.