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New deer disease confirmed at Minnesota farm

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health on Wednesday confirmed the state's first-ever case of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, saying it killed six of seven captive deer at a southern Minnesota farm. (file / News Tribune)

Minnesota’s first-ever case of a fatal deer disease was confirmed Wednesday in a captive deer herd in Goodhue County.

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health said epizootic hemorrhagic disease was confirmed in six of seven in deer in a captive herd which died earlier this month at a Goodhue County farm.

A single remaining buck at the farm appears healthy and is showing no clinical signs of the  disease.

While epizootic hemorrhagic disease is widespread across North America, this is the first such detection in Minnesota deer. It had previously been detected in two Minnesota cattle in Brown County, in 2012, and Murray County in 2013.

The disease is carried by tiny midges, or gnats, and that may mean other animals in the area around the farm could be infected because the captive deer hadn’t been moved, said Mackenzie Reberg, Board of Animal Health senior veterinarian. “These bugs can’t travel far on their own and we’re concerned by this detection,’’ she said.

The potential for the disease to spread to Minnesota's wild whitetail deer population is as yet unknown, but it has killed wild deer in other areas. According to the Pennsylvania Game Commission the disease “can cause a significant number of deaths during outbreaks.”

“Hemorrhagic disease can cause very high mortality rates and is considered the most important viral disease of white-tailed deer in the United States,” the agency notes on its website. “Both wild free-ranging and captive deer and elk are at risk of contracting (hemorrhagic disease), and the disease can be spread by transporting infected animals to areas where the disease is not yet present.”

Montana wildlife biologists reported a 2007 outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease wiped out 80 percent of the wild deer herd in the state’s Milk River area. There was a major outbreak of the disease in 2012 in Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska in captive bison, deer and some cattle herds, causing many deaths, but its impact on wild deer at that time is unknown.

Tom Rusch, Minnesota DNR wildlife manager in the Tower area, said the disease has the potential to “devastate the herd similar to our severe winters.” Other DNR experts did not immediately return a request to comment on the finding.

Outbreaks of diseases similar to epizootic hemorrhagic disease have been described since 1890 in the U.S. But the virus that causes epizootic hemorrhagic disease was not isolated until an outbreak in New Jersey white-tailed deer in 1955.

The quick and suspicious deaths of the Minnesota farm deer earlier this month alarmed the owner, who worked with a veterinarian to submit tissues from the carcasses to the Iowa State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory to determine the cause of death.

According to Minnesota officials, epizootic hemorrhagic disease affects all members of the deer family, Cervidae, although there are no known health risks to people. Many different deer species may be infected with the hemorrhagic disease, and white-tailed deer are highly susceptible. Many infected deer die within 36 hours of clinical signs that include fever, anorexia, lethargy, stiffness, respiratory distress, oral ulcers and severe swelling of the head and neck. Sporadic cases occur in other species of cervids and hoofstock. There is no specific treatment or vaccine available in the U.S.

The board has notified the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Minnesota deer have been battling another malady, chronic wasting disease, for more than a decade, with outbreaks popping up on captive deer farms and in some wild animals periodically.

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