Thursday, April 20, 2006

VIRGINIA NEWS: Mystery Ailment Strikes Deer in Northern Virginia

A MYSTERIOUS AILMENT has been afflicting deer in Loudoun and Fauquier counties and state wildlife officials are grappling for answers.

Most of the deer brought to Dr. Jonathan Sleeman for necropsy were killed because they exhibited signs of severe illness, including diarrhea and emaciation. With concerns running high over preventing Chronic Wasting Disease from entering Virginia, the sick deer rapidly became a priority, according to Jerry Sims, regional biologist for the DGIF.

Chronic Wasting Disease has not been detected in any of the deer tested, according to Sleeman, a wildlife veterinarian for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The problem was first discovered a couple of months ago and both fawns and adult deer have exhibited sickness, with nearly 10 examined in detail post-mortem.

"At one point, there was a thought that this may be related to an element deficiency, such as selenium, but that isn't bearing out," Sims said.

Added Sleeman: "I am seeing emaciation with chronic enteritis [inflammation of the gut]. Some cases also have pneumonia. We have not determined the exact cause, but I am suspicious that it is caused by an infectious agent such as a parasite or bacteria.

"However, we have established that these deer appear to be on marginal nutrition, and high deer densities may be a factor," he said, also explaining that people feeding deer may also be contributing to this problem by concentrating deer in the same area.

Sleeman said the illness appears localized to western Loudoun County and northern Fauquier County and doesn't seem to be a threat to the region's entire deer herd. Sleeman also explained this doesn't appear related to any deer farming activities since there aren't any captive facilities nearby.

Sims wonders if these may be deer that normally would have died during a rougher winter, but made it through this recent mild winter.

"We don't want to give the perception that deer are sick or dying in significant numbers," he said. "But, we are finding scattered deer with this condition in areas with dense deer herds. These may be the poster children for over-populated deer herds."

Sleeman said the department will continue to investigate additional cases and is awaiting results of diagnostic tests. Officials are also planning to meet to discuss management options relative to the situation.

While there is no evidence that this disease is transmissible to humans, Sleeman advises anyone seeing a sick deer not to disturb nor kill the animal. Quickly report it to the nearest DGIF office and someone will investigate the report, he said.

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