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Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)

Chronic Wasting Disease is a neurological disease that affects members of the cervid family (deer, elk, moose, and reindeer/caribou). Like mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep and goats and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans, it's caused not by a virus or bacteria, but by abnormal prions, or proteins.

Those altered prions kill brain cells and ultimately lead to tiny holes in the brains of infected animals. Those impacts are not immediately visible. CWD-infected animals might not show symptoms of the disease for 18 to 24 months. But all white-tailed deer and elk that contract CWD die. There are no exceptions.

Infectious CWD prion are shed in saliva, urine, and feces. Therefore, animals can be infected via animal-to-animal contact or through contaminated environments.

CWD in Pennsylvania

CWD was first found in Pennsylvania in captive deer in October of 2012, and in wild, free-ranging whitetails in early 2013. Brochure (PDF)

CWD has since spread from those initial detection sites over a larger geographic area. Testing has detected the disease in all or parts of Adams, Armstrong, Bedford, Berks, Blair, Cambria, Centre, Clarion, Clearfield, Cumberland, Fulton, Franklin, Huntingdon, Indiana, Jefferson, Juniata, Lancaster, Lebanon, Mifflin, Perry, Somerset, Snyder, Union and Westmoreland counties.

CWD Management

CWD is a serious and persistent threat to deer and elk across much of North America. And dealing with it will not be easy. As the National Deer Association makes clear (link to existing screen shot of video here), there are many challenges involved in dealing with this disease, ranging from managing CWD in the face of political opposition to reaching a largely disengaged hunting community.

Managing CWD in Pennsylvania is going to require a long-term commitment from the Pennsylvania Game Commission and its wildlife partners, including hunters and wildlife watchers. A CWD Response Plan developed in cooperation with stakeholders and experts from around the country,  outlines Pennsylvania's plan to meet that challenge going forward.

CWD and Disease Management Areas (DMAs)

Following the detection of CWD in both captive and free-ranging deer in Pennsylvania, an executive order (PDF) was issued by the Game Commission establishing Disease Management Areas (DMAs). Within DMAs, rehabilitation of cervids (deer, elk and moose); the use or possession of cervid urine-based attractants in an outdoor setting; the removal of high-risk cervid parts; and the feeding of wild, free-ranging cervids are prohibited. Increased testing continues in these areas to determine the distribution of the disease.

The Game Commission has three Disease Management Areas (DMAs) – DMA 2, 3 and 4 – across the state. (DMA 1, formed after discovery of a CWD-positive deer on a captive deer farm in Adams County in 2012 (PDF), was dissolved after five years without detecting any new CWD cases there.)

Regulations meant to slow or stop the human-assisted spread of CWD across the landscape apply to all DMAs. It's illegal within DMAs to rehabilitate injured deer, possess or use cervid urine-based attractants, remove high-risk parts and feed free-ranging deer.

The boundaries of DMAs can change year to year, based on the location of CWD-infected animals discovered through testing. Current boundaries for 2020-21 are as follows:

DMA 2 was established in 2012 and now covers approximately 7,470 square miles, an expansion of 755 square miles over last year. For 2020 biologists expanded it west into Westmoreland County as the result of a CWD-positive adult female roadkill deer, northwest into Cambria and Indiana counties as the result of CWD-positive captive deer facilities and north into Centre County and Mifflin, Union, and Snyder counties as the result of two CWD-positive adult male roadkill deer. DMA 2 currently includes all or parts of Indiana, Cambria, Clearfield, Centre, Union, Snyder, Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Fulton, Franklin, and Adams counties.

DMA 3 (PDF) was established in 2014 and now covers approximately 1,233 square miles, an expansion of 114 square miles over last year. For 2020 biologists expanded it southwest into Jefferson, Indiana, and Armstrong counties because of a CWD-positive yearling male roadkill deer. DMA 3 now covers portions of Jefferson, Clearfield, Indiana, Armstrong, and Clarion counties.

DMA 4 was established in 2018 and now covers approximately 746 square miles, an increase of 397 square miles over last year. For 2020 biologists expanded it further south into Lancaster County after detection of a captive deer with CWD. It now covers portions of Berks, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties.

CWD and Hunting

There is to date only one known way to slow CWD's spreadto lower deer abundance.

Hunters play a vital role in this management action. The Game Commission give hunters expanded opportunities to harvest deer in DMAs.

For the 2020-21 hunting seasons, the Pennsylvania Game Commission is offering Deer Management Assistance Program (DMAP) permits for eight Enhanced Surveillance Units. The permits allow hunters to take antlerless deer during the 2020-21 hunting seasons. They went on sale on July 30.

The purpose of these units is to increase harvest and surveillance in these areas. Successful hunters can submit the heads from those animals for CWD testing to assess the extent of the disease in these areas. The units are located around new CWD detections at the leading edge of disease expansion or in new areas far from other CWD detections.

The Challenge of Managing CWD

Pennsylvania, like more than half of the other states in the country, is facing the challenge of slowing the spread of CWD in wild deer. In this National Deer Association video, you will hear from CWD experts and sportsmen from Wisconsin who have seen and continue to face the issues caused by the disease since it was first detected in the Badger State in 2002. They talk about the challenges of managing CWD in the face of political opposition and a largely disengaged hunting community, and provide suggestions and encouragement to Pennsylvanians as wildlife professionals and hunters in the Commonwealth begin to tread similar waters.

CWD in Pennsylvania

Frequently Asked Questions:

Where can I take my deer map 

For Taxidermists & Processors

If you are presented with a deer or elk harvested in CWD-infected areas, please contact the nearest Game Commission region office for guidance. Additional information is available for processors (PDF) and taxidermists (PDF).

CWD in Pennsylvania

Videos and Podcasts

CWD and Captive Deer

The Game Commission is responsible for managing CWD in wild deer and elk. Management of captive deer, elk and other cervids is the responsibility of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

More Information


Frequently Asked Questions & Answers

What is Chronic Wasting Disease?
Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a contagious, always-fatal disease that infects deer and elk in Pennsylvania. It is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). Other diseases in the TSE family include Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease in cattle; Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in humans; and Scrapie in sheep and goats. It was first recognized in deer and elk in Colorado in 1967. The cause of CWD is believed to be an abnormal prion (proteinaceous infectious particle). Prions are concentrated in the brain, nervous system, and lymphoid tissues of infected animals. The disease causes death of brain cells resulting in microscopic holes in the brain tissue. CWD-infected deer, on average, do not display clinical symptoms of disease for 18 to 24 months.

What animals get CWD?

Is CWD dangerous to humans?
There is no evidence that CWD is transmissible to humans or traditional livestock. However, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that “To date, there have been no reported cases of CWD infection in people. However, animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people. Since 1997, the World Health Organization has recommended that it is important to keep the agents of all known prion diseases from entering the human food chain.”

Is the meat of a CWD positive deer safe to eat?
The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people DO NOT eat meat from animals that test positive for CWD. From the CDC website: “Animal studies suggest CWD poses a risk to some types of non-human primates, like monkeys, that eat meat from CWD-infected animals or come in contact with brain or body fluids from infected deer or elk. These studies raise concerns that there may also be a risk to people. . . If CWD could spread to people, it would most likely be through eating of infected deer and elk…[T]o date, no CWD infections have been reported in people. . . If your animal tests positive for CWD, do not eat meat from that animal.” More information and further recommendations can be found on the Center for Disease Control website.

Where has CWD been found in Pennsylvania?
 In Pennsylvania, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) has been detected in several parts of the state. It was first detected in a captive facility in Disease Management Area (DMA) 1 in Adams County in 2012. DMA 1 has since been eliminated. CWD remains in Disease Management Areas 2, 3 and 4. DMA 2 covers all or portions of Indiana, Cambria, Clearfield, Centre, Union, Snyder, Blair, Huntingdon, Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, Westmoreland, Somerset, Bedford, Fulton, Franklin, and Adams counties. DMA 3 covers portions of Jefferson, Clearfield, Indiana, Armstrong, and Clarion counties. And DMA 4 covers portions of Berks, Lancaster, and Lebanon counties.

In addition, CWD has been detected in wild or captive deer and/or elk in many other states and provinces. A listing of states and provinces where CWD has been identified. A map of Pennsylvania DMAs can be found on the CWD page of the Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.pa.gov).

How is CWD spread?
CWD is transmitted both directly through animal-to-animal contact and indirectly through food and soil contaminated with bodily secretions including feces, urine, and saliva. Contaminated carcasses or high-risk carcass parts may also spread the disease indirectly through environmental contamination. Prions are very stable in the environment and remain infectious for decades.

Why should I stop feeding deer?
Feeding cervids within any Disease Management Area is unlawful. Because any concentration of deer or elk assists in the spread of diseases, immediately stop supplemental feeding programs. For more information, read Please Don't Feed the Deer (PDF).

What is being done to manage CWD in Pennsylvania?
Several state and federal agencies, including the Game Commission, Pennsylvania departments of Agriculture (PDA), Health (PDH), and Environmental Protection (DEP), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) collaboratively work on a response plan, which details methods of prevention, surveillance, and response regarding CWD. Activities designed to reduce the risks associated with this disease are ongoing. Surveillance for CWD and other diseases began in Pennsylvania in 1998 and will continue to better understand the prevalence and distribution of the disease.

How can I tell if a deer or elk has CWD?
Animals infected with CWD do not show signs of infection for 12 or more months; many infected animals look completely healthy. Late stage symptoms of CWD-infected animals include an extreme loss of body condition; excessive drinking, urination, salivation, and drooling; and behavioral and neurologic changes such as repetitive walking patterns, droopy ears, a wide-based stance, and listlessness. Some animals lose their fear of humans and predators. There is no known cure. It is important to note that these symptoms are characteristic of diseases other than CWD.

What should I do if I see a deer or elk displaying signs that suggest CWD?
If you see a deer or elk that you believe is sick, do not disturb or attempt to kill or remove the animal. Accurately document the location of the animal and immediately contact the nearest Game Commission region office.

What are high-risk carcass parts?
High-risk parts include: the head (including brain, tonsils, eyes and any lymph nodes); spinal cord/backbone; spleen; skull plate with attached antlers, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; cape, if visible brain or spinal cord tissue is present; upper canine teeth, if root structure or other soft tissue is present; any object or article containing visible brain or spinal cord tissue; unfinished taxidermy mounts; and brain-tanned hides.

CWD high-risk carcass part

Why are there restrictions on the movement of high-risk parts?
Regulations prohibit the removal or export from any Disease Management Area (DMA) established within the Commonwealth any high-risk parts or materials resulting from cervids harvested, taken, or killed, including by vehicular accident, within any Disease Management Area. Regulations also prohibit the importation of any high-risk parts or materials from cervids harvested, taken, or killed in other areas where CWD has been detected.  Although CWD has been detected in both captive and free ranging deer, the Game Commission's goal continues to be to prevent further introductions of CWD into our state and to prevent spread within the state. The movement of high-risk carcass parts is a potential avenue through which CWD could be spread. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have developed regulations to prohibit the importation of high-risk carcass parts from states and provinces with CWD infected deer.

From where is the importation of high-risk parts prohibited? (Last update Oct. 2020)
The parts ban affects hunters who harvest deer, elk, moose, mule deer and other cervids in: Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming; as well as the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec.

What carcass parts are safe to move?
The following cervid parts may be safely transported into and within Pennsylvania: meat with no part of the spinal column or head attached; cleaned hides without the head; skull plates and/or antlers cleaned of all brain tissue; upper canine teeth without soft tissue; or finished taxidermy mounts. These parts may be moved out of Pennsylvania's Disease Management Areas.