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Conservation > Fish & Wildlife Diseases SARS-CoV-2 in White-tailed deer

For questions/concerns about this disease in humans, please call your doctor or the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services  (DPHHS).

For questions about this disease/parasite in wildlife, please call the FWP Wildlife Health Lab at (406) 577-7882.

Cause

SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) is a new coronavirus in humans causing a respiratory illness called COVID-19 which can be spread from person-to-person.  In some cases, animals have been infected with SARS-CoV-2.

DISTRIBUTION

SARS-CoV-2 is responsible for a pandemic affecting humans world-wide.

SPECIES AFFECTED

Reports of animals infected with SARS-CoV-2 have been documented around the world. Most of these animals became infected after contact with people with COVID-19, including owners, caretakers, or others who were in close contact. We don’t yet know all of the species that can get infected, but wild white-tailed deer are the only free-ranging wildlife species in the U.S. in which infection with SARS-CoV-2 has been documented to date.  The CDC website provides the following information regarding animal species susceptibility to infection with SARS-CoV-2:

  • Companion animals, including pet cats, dogs, and ferrets.
  • Animals in zoos and sanctuaries, including several types of big cats, otters, non-human primates, a binturong, a coatimundi, a fishing cat, and hyenas.
  • Mink on mink farms. One wild and one escaped mink found near affected farms in Utah were found to be infected with SARS-CoV-2. Infected workers likely introduced SARS-CoV-2 to mink on the farms, and the virus then began to spread among the mink. 
  • One study showed that White-tailed deer can be infected with the virus and can transmit the virus to animals of the same species in a laboratory setting (Palmer et. al, 2021).
  • Evidence of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in wild white-tailed deer in several U.S. states including Illinois, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania (Chandler et. al, 2021), and Texas (Palermo et. al, 2022). Surveillance of deer and other wildlife has not yet been conducted in all of the U.S.
  • Infection of wild White-tailed deer has been documented in Ohio (Hale et. al, 2021) and Iowa (Kuchipudi et. al, 2021).
  • Many studies have been done to learn more about how this virus can affect different animals. These findings were based on a small number of animals, and do not show whether animals can spread infection to people.
  • Recent experimental research shows that many mammals, including cats, dogs, bank voles, ferrets, fruit bats, hamsters, mink, pigs, rabbits, racoon dogs, tree shrews, and white-tailed deer can be infected with the virus. Cats, ferrets, fruit bats, hamsters, racoon dogs, and white-tailed deer can also spread the infection to other animals of the same species in laboratory settings.
  • Studies have investigated non-human primates as models for human infection. Rhesus macaques, cynomolgus macaques, baboons, grivets, and common marmosets can become infected with SARS-CoV-2 and become sick in a laboratory setting. There is some evidence suggesting that laboratory mice, which could not be infected with original strains of SARS-CoV-2, can be infected with new virus variants.
  • Chickens and ducks do not seem to become infected or spread the infection based on results from studies.

TRANSMISSION

SARS-CoV-2 spreads among humans when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be inhaled by other people or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. People who are closer than 6 feet from the infected person are most likely to get infected.

Transmission from humans to animals likely occurs via the same routes as transmission from person to person, and people should take precautions to avoid transmitting SARS-CoV-2 to wildlife.  The route of transmission from humans to white-tailed deer is currently unknown.

The CDC currently states the risk of getting COVID-19 from animals in the United States, including wildlife, is low. We know that some mammals can be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, and there is evidence that some free ranging White-tailed deer have been infected in the United States. More studies are needed to understand how the virus is being transmitted to wildlife, the potential impacts to wildlife, and whether there is potential for wildlife to serve as a reservoir for virus transmission back to humans.

SIGNS

Clinical signs of SARS-CoV-2 have not been observed in wild white-tailed deer. In addition, captive deer experimentally infected with SARS-CoV-2 as part of a USDA Agricultural Research Service study did not show clinical signs of illness (Palmer et. al, 2022).  More study is needed to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 may have negative impacts on wildlife populations.

PUBLIC HEALTH CONCERN

There is no evidence that animals, including deer, are playing a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people. Based on the available information, the CDC currently considers the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people to be low. However, because there is at least some potential for exposure SARS-CoV-2 or other zoonotic disease, hunters should always take basic precautions such as wearing gloves and using good hygiene when handling carcasses and field dressing animals.

CITATIONS

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Website. Animals and Covid-19. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/animals.html#:~:text=Research%20on%20animals%20and%20COVID%2D19&text=Recent%20experimental%20research%20shows%20that,be%20infected%20with%20the%20virus.

Chandler, J.C., Bevins, S.N., Ellis, J.W., Linder, T.J., Tell, R.M., Jenkins-Moore, M., Root, J.J., Lenoch, J.B., Robbe-Austerman, S., DeLiberto, T.J., Gidlewski, T., Torchetti, M.K., and Shriner, S.A. 2021. SARS-CoV-2 Exposure in White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Nov 2021, 118(47).

Hale, V.L., Dennis, P.M., McBride, D.S., Nolting, J.M., Madden, C., Huey, D., Ehrlich, M., Grieser, J., Winston, J., Lombardi, D., Gibson, S., Saif, L., Killian, M.L., Lantz, K., Tell, R.M., Torchetti, M., Robbe-Austerman, S., Nelson, M.I., Faith, S.A., and Bowman, A.S.  SARS-CoV-2 infection in free-ranging white-tailed deer. Nature (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-04353-x

Kuchipudi, S.V., Surendran-Nair, M., Ruden, R.M., Yon, M., Nissly, R.H., Nelli, R.K., Li, L., Jayaraoa, B.M., Vandegrift, K.J., Maranas, C.D., Levine, N., Willgert, K., Conlan, A.J.K., Olsen, R.J., Davis, J.J., Musser, J.M., Hudson, P.J., and Kapur, V. 2022. Multiple spillovers and onward transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in free-living and captive white-tailed deer. Proceedings of the National Academies of Science of the United States of America. PNAS February 8, 2022 119 (6) e2121644119

Oude Munnink, B.B., Sikkema, R.S., Nieuwenhuijse, D.F., Molenaar, R.J., Munger, E., Molenkamp, R., van der Spek, A., Tolsma, P., Rietveld, A., Brouwer, M., Bouwmeester-Vincken, N., Harders, F., Hakze-van der Honing, R., Wegdam-Blans, M.C.A., Bouwstra, R.J., GeurtsvanKessel, C., van der Eijk, A.A., Velkers, F.C., Smit, L.A.M., Stegeman, A., van der Poel, W.H.M., Koopmans, M.P.G. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on mink farms between humans and mink and back to humans. Science. 2021 Jan 8;371(6525):172-177. doi: 10.1126/science.abe5901. Epub 2020 Nov 10. PMID: 33172935; PMCID: PMC7857398.

Palermo, P.M., Orbegozo, J., Watts, D.M., and Morrill, J.C. 2022. SARS-CoV-2 Neutralizing Antibodies in White-tailed Deer from Texas. Short Communications. Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases., Vol. 2, No. 1.

Palmer, M. V., Martins, M., Falkenberg, S., Buckley, A., Caserta, L.C., Mitchell, P.K., Cassmann, E.D., Rollins, A., Zylich, N.C., Renshaw, R.W., Guarino, C., Wagner, B., Lager, K., and Diel, D.G. 2021. Susceptibioity of White-Tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) to SARS-CoV-2.  Journal of Virology. Vol. 95, No. 11. Jan 2022. 62-64.