A high-fever disease is hitting Virginia’s deer this year. Here’s what you need to know

Deer spot the cameraman at Riverview Farm Park. (WYDaily/Courtesy of Michael Poplawski)
Deer spot the cameraman at Riverview Farm Park. (Southside Daily/Courtesy of Michael Poplawski)

A disease in deer resulting in cracked hooves, a fever and sometimes death is making its seasonal rounds in Virginia, but has popped up in some less-common areas this year. 

Caused by biting flies sometimes called “no-see-ums,” cases of Hemorrhagic Disease in the state’s wild deer population is a common find between August and October in southeastern Virginia.

This year, it’s been found a bit further west in the “less common” zone, most prevalent in Bedford and Franklin counties near the Appalachian Mountains.

As of Thursday, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has received 87 reports from 38 Virginia counties involving 180 deer believed to be infected with Hemorrhagic Disease, the department wrote in a news release.

State wildlife biologists say the disease isn’t a big cause for concern currently.

“It’s one of the diseases we get some of it each year in the state,” said Katie Martin, a VDGIF district wildlife biologist based in Farmville. “A lot can survive it, especially if they were in good health.”

With early archery deer hunting season already underway as of Oct. 5 — and the general season starting Nov. 16 — there are some important things to keep in mind about Hemorrhagic Disease.

Humans and other animals are generally not susceptible to the disease, except some livestock such as cows and sheep. 

Even hunters can eat venison from deer currently or previously infected with the disease, although the deer may develop secondary infections or abscesses while sick — in which case, hunters should reconsider consuming the meat.

Fortunately, many healthy deer can overcome the disease and successfully survive it with few long-term effects, Martin said. Some will have cracked hooves from the period where the fever stunted hoof growth, but will otherwise be fine.

Death from HD

Deer that die from Hemorrhagic Disease sometimes are found in or near water because they die while trying to drink and cool down from the disease’s trademark fever, Martin said.

People who find those deer do not need to worry about catching a disease from the carcass. Generally, the deer can be left where it is unless the person wants to drag it farther.

Regardless of where the deer decomposes, the death should be reported to the VDGIF if the deer looks like it was generally “healthy” when it died — for Martin, that means no trauma from vehicle crashes or other evidence of a disease.

Deer that die from the disease often look healthy, except they can get a little thin if the fever has prevented them from eating for long enough.

Monitoring

Reporting the deaths to the game and fisheries department helps them track the disease and run tests if they can access the carcass before it begins decomposing.

Testing involves taking the deer’s spleen and sending it to a lab in Georgia, which can help reveal which strain of the disease the deer was infected with, Martin said.

The department uses the data to monitor where the outbreaks are occurring, such as this year’s in Bedford and Franklin counties. Last year, the disease was found in a very uncommon area: the fast southwest part of Virginia, near the Kentucky border.

Hunting

It’s unusual for the disease to have a large enough impact to affect hunting, but sometimes hunters will see more restrictions if there’s a particularly bad outbreak in one spot.

If a particular population is hit especially hard one year, the VDGIF will put restrictions on deer hunting in that area to allow the population to bounce back.

Martin said hunters automatically get six deer tags — three doe and three buck tags — when they buy their hunting license in the eastern part of the state. The buck-to-doe ratio changes depending on the area. In some areas, hunters can buy additional tags to fill during the season.

If an area is hit by Hemorrhagic Disease, the department can limit which days of the week female deer can be hunted, Martin said.

How to help

Martin said her department sometimes gets questions about how people can help infected deer or prevent it from spreading.

Her answer is: “Unfortunately, not much can be done.” Only a heavy rain or a frost can help kill the disease-carrying flies.

There is some hope, however.

When a female deer survives the disease, she will pass her newfound immunity on to her fawns when she gives birth.

“That part is pretty cool,” Martin said.

Those who find dead deer or strange acting animals on their property can call the VDGIF’s wildlife conflict helpline toll fee at 855-571-9003.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.