Six Deer Diseases

Six Deer Diseases: Is it Safe to Eat, or Dangerous?

Deer Diseases

There’s not much that I enjoy more than firing up the barbecue on a cold winter day and grilling some tasty deer or elk back strap. Booyah! Man food. Okay, everybody food.

But what if one of the deer diseases has infested the meat. Is it safe to eat?

Here’s a quick and dirty overview of six deer diseases and what symptoms to look for when harvesting your next animal.

WARNING: Some of the images on this page might be disturbing.

First, let’s look at those which are safe to consume

Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) — safe

Chronic Wasting Disease (aka CWD), is a growing concern in the United States. This disease is similar to “Mad Cow Disease,” in that it affects the host’ brain. Chronic Wasting Disease attacks the brain of deer, moose, elk and other species of the deer family. This disease causes the animal to lose bodily functions before killing the deer altogether.

Look for these symptoms

  • The appearance of starvation
  • Excessive drooling
  • Lack of coordination

Even though this disease is fatal to deer, it has not been proven to be harmful to humans.

This map shows the Distribution of Chronic Wasting Disease in North America

Chronic Wasting Disease
By USGS, National Wildlife Health Center – USGS Webpage for Chronic Wasting Disease, Public Domain

deer warts disease

Deer Warts (Cutaneous fibromas) — safe

Deer Warts is probably the most easily noticeable disease, with its large and rather grotesque features on the skin. These warts are the animal’s way of responding to a cut or abrasion that gets infected. Therefore, this disease is more common in bucks, as they like to fight for females and territory. Deer warts can also be the result of an insect bite. The meat of a deer with warts is safe; however, one should stay away from the infected tumors, as they are not suitable for human consumption.

mange deer diseases

Mange — safe

Mange is a skin disease caused by mites known as Demodex odocoilei. It causes the deer to lose hair and is often accompanied by the thickening of the skin in the affected areas. Puss-filled lesions are not an uncommon sight with mange-infected deer. Mange is only a skin disease and does not affect the meat of the animal.

bluetongue and ehd deer diseases

Blue Tongue Virus (BTV) and Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) — unsafe

Blue Tongue Virus is a found primarily in white-tail deer, but can also be found in other species as well. This disease can be fatal to humans but is more of just a nuisance to the animal.

BTV by itself is not harmful to humans; however, avoid meat infected by BTV in combination with any other disease.

According to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife,

The viruses that cause hemorrhagic disease do not infect humans, and people will not contract these diseases from eating meat from infected animals. Deer with hemorrhagic disease may be more susceptible to other diseases, however, and consumption of a sick-looking animal is not advised.

Symptoms of bluetongue virus

  • A distinctively blue tongue (hence the name)
  • Excessive drooling
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling of the neck, facial area, and tongue
  • Hoof deformations and fever

And now, the deer diseases which require caution or are not safe to consume

deer brain abscesses deer diseases
Photo Source:

Brain Abscesses — exercise caution

This disease occurs when bacteria enters the body near the brain of the deer. Once the bacterium has infected the brain, the abscess begins to grow and contaminates all meat from the animal. This infection causes the animal to lose its sight as well as other bodily functions. This disease is predominantly more common in bucks because of fighting and annual antler shed.


  • Walking in circles
  • Blindness
  • Paralysis
  • Losing the fear of humans

According to the National Wildlife Health Center

Meat of animal is safe, prevent contact with abscesses and contamination of carcass. Wear protective gloves when removing antlers for trophy use; discard gloves along with head and replace with new gloves if further handling/processing of animal is to occur. SOURCE: Is This Safe To Eat?

Bullet Wound Infections — Exercise caution

Similar to brain abscess, bullet wounds can cause deer to form an abscess in the affected area. Over time bacteria enters through the entry wound and infects the surrounding area. Do not consume the affected meat of an animal with a past wound of a projectile.

Additional Safety Tips

There are a few ways to keep you and your equipment safe when hunting and harvesting game.

First, experts say to sanitize your knives after each use with a half-water and half-bleach solution.

Second, wear gloves while field dressing your game. Gloves will protect you from exposure to infected areas.

Lastly, do not eat the organs of the infected animal. Most diseases exist in the organs of the animal.

If in doubt, take the infected carcass to fish and game and get another tag.

Harvest Inspection Tips

Here is some advice from the USGS, National Wildlife Health Center

At the time of harvest, thoroughly inspect the outside of the carcass.

External Exam:

  • Do the hair, coat, feathers, or other body coverings look healthy?
  • Is the animal in good body condition or is it very thin or emaciated?
  • Are abnormal conditions present, such as growths, deformities, or injuries?
  • Are there other signs of illness, such as evidence of diarrhea (abnormal looking or soft stool adhered to the vent area)?

Internal Exam:

  • How does the carcass smell?
  • Do any of the tissues or organs appear irregular or abnormal in shape or color?
  • Do any of the tissues or organs appear to contain abscesses?
  • Are there any tissues or organs that contain what appear to be parasites?

Use all of your senses when examining a carcass. Bad odors generally arise from rotting tissues, perhaps from an old injury that has abscessed. However, the spillage of intestinal tract content into the body cavity during removal or from rupture during harvest may also be the source for such odor. The food source of the animal may also result in strong odors that are not an indication of disease. Cedar, sagebrush, and bivalves (mussels) are examples of foods consumed by wildlife that may make them smell odd, but do not represent potential human health hazards. The appearance of internal organs and tissues is often compromised by damage during the harvest of the animal and may be difficult to evaluate. However, the appearance of abscesses, fungal growth, and tumors within the body cavity should generally result in the rejection of the carcass for consumption.

Well, that’s a wrap on deer diseases. If you found this article helpful, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Additional Resources:

For more in-depth information on wildlife food safety, download this excellent free guide from the National Wildlife Health Center, “Is This Safe To Eat.”

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