Recent scientific studies have shown that white-tailed deer, a deer species found all over the eastern United States, can become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. A new University of Florida publication explains what is currently known about these infections, as well as the potential risk to people and best practices for hunters, deer farmers and the general public.
Can people get COVID-19 from white-tailed deer?
Right now, there’s no evidence that the virus is being transmitted from white-tailed deer to humans, said Sam Wisely, author of the UF/IFAS publication and a professor specializing in wildlife diseases in the UF/IFAS wildlife ecology and conservation department.
“Overall, the risk is low because most people are not in regular close proximity to white-tailed deer,” Wisely said. “However, people should always take certain precautions around deer and wildlife.”
In general, wildlife experts recommend the following:
- Never approach wildlife
- Keep pets away from wildlife
- Don’t feed wildlife
- Don’t touch wildlife droppings
- Wash your hands after being outside
- Leave young animals alone. Parents are often nearby.
- Don’t handle dead or sick animals. If you see a dead or sick animal, contact your state wildlife agency.
Where has the virus been found in white-tailed deer?
There is evidence that white-tailed deer have been exposed in several areas in the United States and Canada. Deer with the virus or antibodies against the virus have been found in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Oklahoma, Ohio and Quebec, Canada.
If people are around deer, what safety practices should they follow?
There isn’t evidence that people can catch COVID from preparing or harvesting deer meat, Wisely said. However, there are general precautions people can take.
“The CDC recommends that people hunting deer stick to the normal recommended safety steps — such as wearing gloves and cooking meat thoroughly — with the addition of possibly wearing a mask when field dressing the animals,” Wisely said. “In addition, the CDC recommends that people who are around deer daily wear a mask to decrease transmission risk.”
How do deer catch the virus?
The most common way deer catch the virus is through respiratory droplets, though some research indicates that people may pass the virus onto deer through contaminated wastewater, Wisely said.
How is the virus able to infect deer and other animals?
“Coronaviruses, the family of viruses that includes SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, have evolved to recombine and mutate easily, which allows them to adapt to new hosts quickly, including white-tailed deer and other animals,” Wisely said.
How does the virus affect white-tailed deer?
“While the research shows that white-tailed deer are very susceptible to infection, they either don’t show symptoms or have mild symptoms, such as cough or raspy breathing. More research is needed to understand why some species can get the pathogen but not show symptoms,” Wisely said.
Are other deer species vulnerable to infection?
“While the virus has not been detected in other deer species, an analysis of the cell receptors of other species predicts that Père David’s deer and reindeer are also likely to become infected,” Wisely said. “The spike protein of the virus can be thought of as a key, and the receptors in an animal’s cells can be thought of as the lock. If the key fits the lock, then that species can become infected.”
Samantha Murray is with the University of Florida.