COVID and Hunting

Can a deer give you COVID? Here’s what the latest studies say.

COVID and Hunting

I spent most of September 2021 in the field, where I was fortunate enough to arrow a dandy pronghorn and gnarly 5.5-year old 3x3 whitetail buck in Wyoming on two separate hunts, and arrow a beautiful 4.5-year old 5x5 bull elk in Montana. As I drove throughout the West, I marveled not just at the grandeur of the country, but also at the different ways people were responding to the so-called COVID “pandemic.”

Now, I don’t care whether you think masks work to “stop the spread” (I don’t), lockdowns are effective preventatives (I don’t), or that you should have to show a vax card to travel, eat out, or visit another country (ridiculous). In fact, I believe – and the science bears me out — that all three of these draconian measures have been much more disruptive and harmful to society as a whole than beneficial in protecting people from a virus with a 99.5 percent, or thereabouts, survival rate (unless you’re over 70 years old or have serious comorbidities). That said, nobody wants to catch COVID. We all have friends who have had it, and quite possibly know someone who died from COVID complications. 

So when I read a study that said it’s not just humans, but also whitetail deer, that can carry the same SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, I thought, What the heck? Is this for real? Can a deer give me COVID? Does that I mean I should not be deer hunting?

What’s the answer? 

This particular study’s results were released on Aug. 21, 2021, by the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Veterinary Services Laboratories (NVSL), which announced confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) in wild whitetail deer in Ohio. Emphasis on the “wild.” These were the first deer confirmed with the SARS-CoV-2 virus worldwide, although earlier studies showed that deer can be experimentally infected with the virus, and that some wild deer had virus antibodies. In addition, SARS-CoV-2 infections were previously reported in a small number of animal species worldwide, mostly in animals that had close contact with a person with COVID-19.

As a follow-up, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) completed a study that analyzed serum samples from free-ranging whitetail deer for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The study showed that certain whitetail populations in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania were exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and carried antibodies to the disease.

The deer in these studies came from both urban and rural populations, and the percentage of deer infected varied by location, and in some counties very low percentages of deer — or none — had antibodies. Also, nobody knows exactly how these deer became exposed.

Did the deer catch it from people, the environment, or other deer? According to APHIS, we don’t know. Anything’s possible. Could the deer spread the virus to people? Fortunately, there is no evidence that animals, including deer, are playing a significant, if any, role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people.

This winter I read an article on WebMD stating that, since the pandemic began, researchers have tested more than 50 animal species in multiple zoos and aquariums, and found COVID-19 infections in wild animals such as big cats, otters, mink, and non-human primates, as well as whitetails. The number of confirmed species with COVID-19 continues to go up as time marches on. In February 2022, The Wildlife Society reported that a study conducted in December 2021 and January 2022, led by Pennsylvania State University researchers, showed that 19 out of 131 deer sampled on Staten Island, New York, tested positive of the Omicron variant. Yearling whitetails were much more likely than fawns to be affected. In zoos, experts haven’t seen any COVID-19 transmission from one managed species to another; all the infected animals got the virus from a human animal keeper who had COVID-19. Animals can also become infected from contact with contaminated objects or surfaces, or via an aerosol (through the air) transmission.

Where Do We Go From Here?

When I read all this, and more (there’s tons of information online about COVID and animals), my occasionally addled brain had some thoughts. Does this mean all whitetails should be rounded up and masked? If so, would a cloth mask suffice, or would they need an N95? Would it need to be worn over their noses as well as mouths, and if so, how could they smell approaching danger? Should they be locked down and held in quarantine? Forced to show a vax passport to cross county lines? What???

Fortunately, based on the available information, scientists believe the risk of animals spreading COVID-19 to people is low. That means it’s safe to hunt, and eat, them. Of course, knowing all this just reinforces what we already know about handling and processing game; that being to keep it clean and cold, wear gloves, meticulously scrub your knives and other cleaning tools when finished, and wash up after you’re done field dressing and butchering the animal. This includes safely disposing of the carcass.

One fact that shone through the data is people with COVID-19 can spread the virus to animals during close contact. Thus, anyone suspected of or confirmed to have COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets and other animals to protect them from possible infection.

Fortunately for all of us, COVID is being recognized as an endemic virus now, like the flu, that’s not going away anytime soon, and we’re going to have to learn to live with, not hide from, it. Still, it pays to be smart about COVID, even when deer hunting.

Who knows where all this will lead? You can read more about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between people and wildlife here:


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