Recreational deer hunting is a popular sport throughout the United States and Ohio. In 2021, Ohio hunters officially harvested 196,988 deer, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), Division of Wildlife. Ohio’s average harvest from 2018 through 2021 is 184,746 deer per year (ohiodnr.gov/discover-and-learn/safety-conservation/about-ODNR/news/ohios-final-2021-22-deer-harvest-report). This annual event potentially exposes upwards of 11.4 million hunters nationwide and 410,000 statewide to interactions with many wildlife species, including white-tailed deer.
SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) Detected in White-tailed Deer
Samples taken from deer around the United States have shown that large numbers of white-tailed deer have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of COVID-19 ( Marques et al. 2022; Hale et al. 2022; Palmer et al. 2021). While knowledge about white-tailed deer COVID infection is limited due to its novelty, it appears to be an ongoing issue that does not cause significant illness to the deer. Northeastern Ohio deer sampled in 2020 and 2021 at 10 different sites showed both SARS-CoV-2 RNA (Hale et al. 2022), and between 6–40% of the deer had antibodies to the virus, suggesting they had been infected (Boley et al. 2022). The full extent of white-tailed deer COVID-19 transmission to humans in unknown. A recent study found a single case in which a deer strain infected a person, suggesting that deer can transmit the virus to humans, and that deer strains may be different from current circulating human strains (Pickering et al. 2022). Continued human variant introduction to deer (Kuchipudi et al. 2022) along with mutation of the virus in deer could provide additional opportunities for the virus to evolve. We do not yet know whether COVID-19 deer strains can cause a more serious illness in humans. Additional precautions should be taken when interacting with any wildlife species, but hunters should be aware of the possible risk of white-tailed deer COVID-19 transmission to humans.
SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 Signs and Symptoms
White-tailed deer show very mild symptoms when infected with SARS-CoV-2, such as coughing or mild mucous discharge, but most will appear in normal health. Humans may develop a variety of symptoms within two to 14 days after exposure to the virus:
- fever or chills
- shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- muscle or body aches
- new loss of taste or smell
- sore throat
- congestion or runny nose
- nausea or vomiting
Considerations for Hunters
There is currently no evidence that you can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating food, including wild hunted game meat in the United States. However, hunters should practice good hygiene and follow the recommendations below to prevent getting sick.
Safety Practices for Handling and Cleaning Wild Game Animals:
- Wear a mask to reduce your risk of coming into contact with pathogens transmitted through respiratory droplets. Preparing a carcass may spread aerosols (small droplets and particles in the air) which could contain the virus. Before field dressing the animal, wash your hands, and put on a mask covering your nose and mouth.
- Wear rubber or disposable gloves when handling the carcass. Take the gloves off and clean hands before removing the mask.
- Do not eat, drink, or smoke when handling and cleaning game animals.
- Avoid cutting the backbone and spinal tissues, and do not eat the brains of deer as these tissues may contain other potentially zoonotic pathogens such as chronic wasting disease (Pritzkow 2022). In addition, avoid cutting through the lungs, nasal passages, and intestinal tract as these sites might contain SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Safety Practices After Handling and Cleaning Game:
- Remove gloves, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water or at least with water. At a minimum, use hand sanitizer.
- Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
- Use soap and water to clean knives, equipment, and surfaces that were in contact with game meat and then disinfect them.
- Cook all game meat thoroughly to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- Check with your state wildlife agency about testing requirements for other diseases and for specific instructions on preparing, transporting, and eating game meat. Call 1-800-WILDLIFE (945-3543) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additional Precautions To Avoid the Spread of General Disease and To Keep Meat Safe:
- Do not allow contact between deer and domestic animals, including pets and hunting dogs. Dogs and cats can be infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus (Mallapaty 2020) and at least one case of cat to human transmission has been reported (Piewbang et al. 2022). More importantly, additional host exposure allows the virus to sample and adapt to new species. We do not yet know how these new strains will act in new hosts, but they may become even more transmissible.
- Do not harvest animals that appear sick or are found dead.
- Keep game meat clean and cool the meat as soon as possible after harvesting the animal. While not related to SARS-CoV-2 safety, this helps to ensure that other foodborne illnesses such as E coli or Salmonella will be prevented.
- Cook meat thoroughly to kill viruses, bacteria, and parasites that may reside on or within the meat. Internal temperatures ranging from 145 F to 165 F are recommended depending on the cut of meat (University of Minnesota Extension n.d.).
SARS-CoV-2 Reverse Zoonosis (Anthroponosis)
Anthroponosis is the spread of a pathogen from humans to animals. The transmission of disease from animals to humans is called zoonosis. The spread of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to white-tailed deer is an example of anthroponosis. Human involvement likely led to the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to white-tailed deer in multiple transmission events. The virus has since spread from deer to deer in numerous states throughout the United States. The introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into deer has many potential ramifications:
- virus exposure to additional wildlife species
- a new reservoir of infected animal species, limiting our ability to eradicate the virus
- a potential host capable of creating new virus variants with unknown danger to humans
The Continued Introduction of Human SARS-CoV-2 Variants To Deer Can Be Limited by Following a Few Recommendations:
- Avoid interacting with wildlife and areas frequented by wildlife, particularly if feeling sick or testing positive for COVID-19.
- Avoid hand feeding deer and wildlife in general and do not discard food items in areas frequented by wildlife.
- Pack out any waste generated while hunting, hiking, or camping.
- Prep your field processing kits with disposable surgical or N95 masks, hand sanitizer, and disposable gloves.
- Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccinations. Immunity decreases over time and the virus is ever evolving, making updated vaccinations necessary . Your doctors can discuss which vaccinations you should have and answer any concerns you may have with sound medical advice.
- If you experience COVID-19 symptoms between two to14 days after processing deer, you should take a COVID test. If positive, consult with and inform your doctor about your game contact to decide on the best course of treatment, while avoiding exposure to other people. Inform a local government health official (odh.ohio.gov/find-local-health-districts) about potential acquisition of SARS-CoV-2 from wildlife.
- If you have further disease questions, you can contact the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) information number at (800) CDC-INFO (232-4636).
More information about preventing the spread of COVID-19 to white-tailed deer and other wildlife can be found at cdc.gov/healthypets/covid-19/wildlife.html.
Boley, P.A., et al. (2022). SARS-CoV-2 Serological Surveillance of White-Tailed Deer in Northeastern Ohio. Unpublished.
Hale, V.L., et al. (2021). SARS-CoV-2 Infection In Free-Ranging White-Tailed Deer. Nature, 602(7897), 481–486.
Kuchipudi, S.V., et al. (2022). Multiple Spillovers from Humans and Onward Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 In White-Tailed Deer. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 119(6).
Mallapaty, S. (2020). Coronavirus Can Infect Cats—Dogs, Not So Much. Nature.
Marques, A.D., et al. (2022). Multiple Introductions of SARS-CoV-2 Alpha and Delta Variants into White-Tailed Deer in Pennsylvania. medRxiv.
Palmer, M.V., et al. (2021). Susceptibility of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus Virginianus) to SARS-CoV-2. J Virol, 95(11).
Pickering, B., et al. (2022). Highly Divergent White-Tailed Deer SARS-CoV-2 With Potential Deer-to-Human Transmission. bioRxiv.
Piewbang, C., et al. (2022). SARS-CoV-2 Transmission from Human to Pet and Suspected Transmission from Pet to Human, Thailand. J Clin Microbiol.
Pritzkow, S. (2022). Transmission, Strain Diversity, and Zoonotic Potential of Chronic Wasting Disease. Viruses, 14(7), 1390.
University of Minnesota Extension. (n.d.) “Cooking Venison for Flavor and Safety.” Preserving and Preparing. Accessed November 14, 2022.
Article reviewed by Renukaradhya Gourapura, DVM, PhD, Professor, Interim Head, Center for Food Animal Health, Department of Animal Sciences and Veterinary Preventive Medicine; and Michael Tonkovich, PhD, Deer Program Administrator, ODNR Division of Wildlife.