Avoid feeding deer to increase distancing and slow AHD virus spread

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists have confirmed that a highly contagious viral infection, known as adenovirus hemorrhagic disease (AHD), is affecting deer across the San Juan Islands. Since the initial confirmation in June 2021, the public has reported hundreds of cases, including on Blakely, Henry, Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, Shaw, and Stuart islands.

AHD also appears to be impacting deer on Whidbey Island. Though lab tests are still pending, we recently investigated several deer deaths near Oak Harbor that showed signs consistent with AHD.

AHD signs and symptoms

Deer with AHD may exhibit the following signs and symptoms: rapid or open-mouth breathing, foaming or drooling from the mouth, diarrhea, weakness, emaciation, and seizures. Fawns are more susceptible to the virus, but yearling and adult deer can also contract it. Death can occur within three to five days of exposure to the virus, although not all infected deer die. Cases of AHD typically peak in midsummer and taper off in the fall.

The AHD virus is transmitted between deer by direct contact with an infected deer, its bodily fluids, or possibly airborne transmission, making it more likely to spread in areas with high deer concentrations. Unfortunately, there is no known cure or treatment for the virus. This virus is specific to deer and does not pose a risk to livestock, pets, or people.

How you can help

With the confirmation of AHD on the San Juan Islands, we are concerned about both the local spread and possible impacts to larger deer herds if it reaches the mainland. You can help slow the spread.

Residents should avoid any wildlife feeding, including low hanging bird feeders and salt licks, and remove supplemental water. This prevents deer from congregating, which reduces the chance that they will pass the disease from one animal to another. When deer rely on natural food and water sources, they are more likely to remain spread out and away from each other — which could save their lives.

Not only can feeding wildlife spread lethal diseases, but it’s also unhealthy for animals even when no diseases are present:

· Carbohydrate-rich foods like fruit, grain, and corn rapidly ferment in the stomach, which can cause an overproduction of acid and damage to the stomach lining. It’s called rumen acidosis. The damage can cause acid and bacterial toxins to leak into a deer’s bloodstream and cause death.

· Feeding deer often increases the risk of vehicle collisions by attracting deer into developed areas with lots of cars, which poses a significant increased risk to people, too.

· When people feed deer it can also increase a deer’s dependency on humans, and they may begin to lose their normal, wild behaviors.

Please help us keep deer and other wildlife wild and healthy by not feeding them. If you see a deer with signs of AHD, please report your sighting using the dead or sick/injured wildlife reporting tool found on WDFW’s Wildlife Diseases webpage. You can find more information about AHD on WDFW’s AHD webpage.

Do not try to capture or take sick deer to wildlife rehabilitation facilities. AHD-infected deer may contaminate the facility and transporting sick deer may accelerate the spread of the disease. The public should also not attempt to rehabilitate sick deer yourself. Unfortunately, this is one of the scenarios where it’s best to let nature take its course.

How can I dispose of a dead deer?

If you have a deceased deer on your property and have the acreage available, we currently recommend that you bury the deer deep enough so that it is not uncovered by scavenging wildlife or pets. We always recommend the use of disposable gloves when handling any wildlife carcass.

With your help, we can reduce the spread of this outbreak and reduce its impact to Washington deer herds.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.