What Does a Deer With CWD Look Like?

September 14, 2022 By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Can you tell if a deer has CWD just by looking at it? In this new video, NDA takes a look at several examples of wild deer in trail-camera and harvest photos to show you real-world deer with CWD and how they appeared.

The incubation period for CWD is one to two years in whitetails. That means a deer can look completely healthy for one to two years before it begins showing signs we would see that it is sick. But that entire one to two year period, the deer is shedding infectious CWD prions and can infect other deer.

Scientific studies in Wisconsin showed that CWD-positive deer die from non-disease factors at three times the rate of healthy deer. These other factors include predators, hunters, vehicle collisions, accidents, and diseases like pneumonia. The slow neurological decline associated with CWD means that wild deer with CWD rarely live long enough to reach the final stages of CWD where signs of illness are obvious. 

You’ve probably seen photos of skinny, emaciated, drooling deer that can barely stand and were told that was a deer with CWD. It’s true, but those are usually deer living in research facilities that are protected from harm until they reach the very final, awful stages of this brain-wasting disease. In the wild, deer rarely reach this final stage. 

So, If you hunt in a CWD zone, do not assume that healthy-looking deer you killed does not have CWD. Submit it for testing, and wait for satisfactory results before you eat the venison. You’ll be minimizing your own risk, and you’ll be helping the state wildlife agency monitor the location and prevalence of the disease, information that helps in the fight.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.:

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.