What We Know, and Don’t Yet Know, About COVID-19 in White-tailed Deer

August 17, 2021 — Recent news that SARS-CoV-2 antibodies were found in wild white-tailed deer has made national headlines and raised many concerns and questions among deer hunters. The National Deer Association would like to provide hunters with a review of the facts along with common-sense recommendations for deer hunters to help them enjoy the upcoming season.

On July 29, USDA Wildlife Services reported detecting SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in samples of wild white-tailed deer from locations in 32 counties spread across four states: Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania and New York. These deer were collected during some of Wildlife Service’s routine management activities, not for the purpose of disease monitoring.

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus. COVID-19 is the disease caused by this virus. Finding antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the not the same thing as finding an active COVID-19 infection. According to the USDA, “None of the deer populations surveyed showed signs of clinical illness associated with SARS-CoV-2.”

The antibodies in these deer are evidence they were exposed to the virus. To date, no white-tailed deer have been found that were actively infected with the COVID-19 disease and spreading the virus. Also, there are currently no documented cases of people catching COVID-19 from deer.

We don’t know how these deer became exposed to the virus. Humans are the virus reservoir, so possibilities include direct contact between deer and humans, indirect contact such as through contaminated feed or bait, and other routes, but more study is needed. 

The deer in the USDA samples came from both urban and rural areas and include small and large sample sizes. The percentage of deer infected varied by location, and in some counties very low percentages of deer – or none – had antibodies. Given this information, it is irresponsible to make broad statements about the exposure rate of the entire U.S. deer population, as many news outlets have done. We simply do not know enough to make such statements at this point.

Currently, there is no confirmed risk to you of COVID-19 infection from handling deer, field-dressing deer, or eating cooked venison. However, it has always been a good idea to protect your health by wearing disposable latex gloves when processing a deer and washing your hands, knife and other equipment thoroughly when done. If you have concerns about this or any other disease potentially carried by deer, these are basic precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

More study of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in deer is needed. If your state wildlife agency asks you to assist by submitting samples from harvested deer, NDA encourages you to participate in such volunteer opportunities if possible. Your help will enable research that ultimately protects our priceless deer resource.

Meanwhile, if you encounter an obviously sick deer, report it immediately to your state wildlife agency. Assisting with awareness and monitoring is one of the best ways hunters can help fight all deer diseases.

Read the USDA Wildlife Services press release about their SARS-CoV-2 findings.