Bedford and Franklin counties have become hotspots for a deadly virus attacking deer. Called hemorrhagic disease, it strikes each year but is hitting harder this year due to the recent drought.
“It is most common over in the eastern part of the state,” said Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. “It is less common as you move west across the Piedmont. It occurs less in Bedford and Franklin counties but right now we are in a severe drought.”
The DGIF keeps reports of people calling in sick deer. They have received more than 100 reports from Franklin and Bedford counties, Knox said. The reports of sick deer typically start in mid-July with the numbers increasing August through October.
Hemorrhagic disease is caused by a virus. It is transmitted from deer to deer by little biting gnats.
“One of those gnats will bite an infected deer, then go and bite another transmitting the virus,” Knox said. “It is a pretty quick onset, 24 to 48 hours. The deer gets a scalding hot fever and that’s why they go lay down near water. Laying down in that cold moist soil is the way mother nature treats a fever.”
Normally deer are great swimmers, but when they are suffering from hemorrhagic disease, that changes. Knox said deer suffering from the disease sometimes fall in the water and die within seconds. Drowning is one of the best indicators that a deer had the disease.
“When they have this fever, they are just delirious,” Knox said. “They won’t run away from people; their head is just flopping around, it’s almost like they are intoxicated. A percentage of them will die because it causes hemorrhages of the blood vessels and organs.”
While deadly, Knox said the disease is not 100% fatal. He said deer populations may be down slightly this hunting season due to the disease.
“In area where HD is occurring, losses during the outbreak usually are well below 25% of the population, but, in a few instances, have been 50% or more,” according to information on the DGIF website.
The largest number of hemorrhagic disease cases appears to follow the drought map, in localities where the drought is most severe.
“What happens is these little gnats breed in mudflats,” Knox said. “Whenever you have these droughts and falling water levels you get these mud banks, the breeding habitat for gnats. When you have a drought, you have better gnat habitat. Not only do you have a better gnat habitat, but you have more deer congregating around the existing water area. So, the drought is concentrating the deer exactly where the gnats are.”
The disease is not transmitted to humans or domestic pets such as dogs and cats. Hunters are not at risk from handling or eating venison from infected deer, Knox said.
Signs of hemorrhagic disease include deer that look depressed, have a swollen head, neck, tongue, eyelids or have difficulty breathing. Potent strains of the virus may kill the deer within one to three days. Lessor strains of the disease may cause the deer to become lame, lose their appetite or reduce their activity, according to the DGIF website.
Anyone who spots a deer suspected of having hemorrhagic disease or finds dead or dying deer near water, in ditches or other areas of cool, moist soil, should report it to the DGIF. The department records HD mortality reports documenting the location and approximate number of animals involved.
To report a deer with hemorrhagic disease, contact the Lynchburg DGIF office at 434-525-7522.
More information on hemorrhagic disease can be found at www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/diseases/hd/.