An unusual type of contagious foot disease may be affecting Kansas’ deer population at a higher than average rate, and the cause isn’t yet known.
Tim Donges, president of the Quality Deer Management Association’s Bluestem branch, said reports of foot rot have been coming in at an alarming rate in recent weeks. As a result, the QDMA is working with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to get to the bottom of the issue.
“It is new to me this year and has always been said to be a rarity, but it does not appear to be rare this year in Kansas,” Donges said.
“I have 20 percent of the bucks that use my 200-acre farm as part of their home range that have shown signs of what appears to be foot rot,” Donges said.
Shane Hesting, wildlife disease coordinator with the KDWPT, said he is working with a cooperative lab based in Georgia to try and figure out the cause of the high numbers of foot rot reports, and if it is indeed foot rot. The agency sent potentially infected legs to the research facility to test. Hesting identified the lab as the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, which is operated through the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
“We see cases every year like this, but this year seems to be a worse year for hoof disease,” Hesting said. “This could simply mean that other years could have been as equally bad but most cases went unreported.”
Hesting said he had received several calls, texts and emails about the issue in the past few weeks, but said that could be credited to more people being aware of it because of Facebook posts and QDMA emails.
"We haven’t had this type of media used in the past like this, so we can’t compare these numbers to other years because of this survey difference,” Hesting said.
According to Hesting, there are several potential causes behind the cases of foot rot seen in Kansas:
- Some hooves are damaged by hemorrhagic disease viruses during the summer months. This can progress to infection in fall and winter in some cases, especially as the deer walk on hard, frozen, jagged soil with damaged hooves.
- Some cases could be attributed to foot rot bacteria (Fusobacterium necrophorum) obtained through open wounds at deer feeders. The bacteria also is known to cause pharyngitis (sore throat) and the potentially life-threatening Lemierre’s syndrome in humans.
- Some hooves may get injured when coming into contact with sharp objects like barbed wire fences. Once again, bacteria enters the wounds at some place and time.
- Stressed and immuno-suppressed post-rut animals in the population merged with an environment of wetter soil during a wetter than normal year, varying bacterial loads and other conditions leading to hoof infections.
“We plan to send samples to the lab from only one deer per county — with hoof abnormality — to save expense,” Hesting said. “Those samples would have to be as fresh as possible and preferably not frozen. We would then want to count any other deer with hoof abnormalities from counties already sampled. So far, we have sent hoof samples from Butler, Lyon, and Woodson counties.”
Other Kansas counties that have reported cases of foot rot include Neosho, Phillips, Cowley, Wilson, Bourbon, Anderson, Geary, Dickinson, Elk, Osage and Decatur.
“If this is indeed foot rot, we need to educate the hunters and public on it, so they can accurately try and report it,” Donges said. “I am guessing this thing will be mainly the eastern half of the state. Hunters (may have) never heard of deer getting foot rot before, so I think this is something new for the Kansas hunters to be able to identify, then report it.”
Donges said hunters likely thought if a deer was limping with a swollen ankle that it had just stepped in a hole or had some sort of minor injury, instead of something that could be infected and eventually would be fatal for the deer. Hunters and other members of the public are asked to report any potential cases of foot rot to Hesting by email to firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (620) 450-8122.
As for the safety of eating meat from an infected deer, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which recently dealt with an outbreak in its elk population, said a microscopic examination of tissues, including meat, from infected elk “has not revealed evidence of infection, inflammation or any other indication that the meat is unsuitable for human consumption.” That said, it still would be best to talk to the KDWPT as soon as a deer with signs of foot rot is shot for instructions on how to handle the deer.
Read the second part of this story here.