Deer ribcage showing Bovine Tuberculosis
Photo by Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Though very rare, if you see bubbles and white spots in a deer's rib cage do not eat the meat. It’s bovine tuberculosis.

Thanks to a graphic Facebook post that has been making the rounds for the last few days, the panic about deer infected with bovine tuberculosis is spreading. Last year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources warned hunters to be on the lookout for bovine tuberculosis in deer. Since Michigan’s deer seasons is starting, the report has now gone viral.

Bovine Tuberculosis is Real

Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious disease caused by certain bacteria that attack the respiratory system of animals and humans. There are several types of tuberculosis, but bovine tuberculosis (bTB) can infect the widest variety of animals and is what wildlife managers have been trying to

eradicate from white-tailed deer in Michigan.

Bovine tuberculosis is spread primarily through coughing and sneezing and exchanging saliva, and can happen when animals are in close contact with one another. Food contaminated by saliva from an infected animal can spread the disease too, and is the primary way that cattle and deer can infect one another.

The Long History of Bovine TB in Michigan

The study of bovine tuberculosis in deer populations has a long history in Michigan

Bovine tuberculosis is a chronic disease that can take years to develop. The strains of bTB now present in Michigan are not native to North America, but were brought here by human movement of infected cattle from Great Britain in the 1700s and 1800s.

In the 1920s, nearly a third of cattle in Alpena and Alcona counties tested positive for bTB. In 1975, a single hunter-harvested white-tailed deer in Alcona County was found positive for bTB. At that time, it was thought that bTB couldn’t sustain itself in wild deer.

Nearly 20 years passed before a hunter harvested Michigan’s second bTB-positive deer in Alpena County in 1994. Since 1995, Michigan has been testing white-tailed deer for bovine tuberculosis year-round. Michigan has the longest- running continuous wildlife TB surveillance program in the world.

According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan is the only state in the nation that has bTB established in wild deer.

The Risk of Infection is Low

Since 1995, 900 deer out of 230,000 have tested positive for the disease, which can be transmitted to humans — with the people who are at significant risk of contracting the disease being hunters, butchers, or people who eat freshly killed deer meat not found in stores, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

People at higher risk include individuals who work with cattle, bison, or cervids (e.g., deer or elk), or products from these animals such as hides, milk, or meat. Examples of occupations or hobbies that might put people at increased risk include ranching, dairy farming, working in a slaughterhouse or as a butcher, and hunting.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources concurs with this view, stating that the risk of transmission to the non-hunting, non-wild-deer-meat-eating public is low. That said, take caution this season and inspect your harvests and report any contaminated animals.

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