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Deer and other animals can get COVID-19. Here's what that means for hunting season.

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U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
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Blood tests found deer populations in Oklahoma tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

Humans aren’t the only ones that can contract COVID-19.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that whitetail deer across the country have the virus. Blood tests found deer populations in Oklahoma tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease COVID-19, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Dwayne Elmore, an extension wildlife specialist for Oklahoma State University, said the virus likely jumped from humans to deer because the strain of COVID-19 matches what humans have.

So, with Oklahoma's deer gun season opening Nov. 20, should hunters be concerned?

Not necessarily.

There are no documented cases of humans becoming infected from whitetail deer, according to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Additionally, there’s no evidence that people can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating meat from an animal that is infected with the virus.

Experts like Elmore think transmission is possible, but people shouldn’t be too worried.

“The average person is not going to be in direct contact with a deer,” Elmore said. “Unless it's a deer hunter that harvests the deer. But in that case, the deer is not respiring. It's dead. And this is a respiratory disease. So it's not putting out droplets that might have COVID.”

Elmore advises handling the deer with gloves. If any meat is contaminated, cooking will kill the virus, he said.

“If somebody is concerned about this, I would just say follow the CDC guidelines and get vaccinated,” Elmore said.

Animals with SARS-CoV-2, vaccinations and outlook of pandemic

Animals such as dogs, cats, ferrets and primates can get the virus too.

That’s why veterinarians at the Oklahoma City Zoo vaccinated 40 animals, including African lions, river otters and western lowland gorillas.

“You know, we deal with a lot of endangered species,” said Jennifer D’Agostino, director of veterinary services at the Oklahoma City Zoo. “They're very, very important to their populations. And so we want to do everything that we can possibly do to make sure that they stay healthy.”

D’Agostino said it’s important to study animal populations with a disease because it can get back into the human population. More than 70% of the emerging diseases that have affected humans have an animal component, according to Ken Burton, the coordinator for National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility.

Diseases can decimate animal populations and can have severe consequences on a global scale, D’Agostino said.

“The ecosystem balance relies on some of these species, and you take that species out of that ecosystem, and that doesn't work anymore,” D’Agostino said. “And so that ecosystem will fail. And as humans, we rely on nature, we can't live without nature. So it's very important for us to be able to protect that.”

Experts like Elmore say the virus in other animals could mean that COVID-19 is never truly eliminated.

“So the disease is already in multiple species, we just added another one, deer, that can carry it,” Elmore said. “So it was not likely that COVID was ever going to go away completely. And this just kind of reinforced that.”

Seth Bodine was KOSU's agriculture and rural issues reporter from June 2020 to February 2022.
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