Health

Warning For Hunters: What Bovine Tuberculosis Is Doing In Deer

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Pictured here is a white-tailed deer. (Photo by: Arterra/UIG via Getty Images)

What do a cow, a deer, and a hunter have in common? The answer in certain parts of Michigan may be Mycobacterium bovis, the bacteria that causes bovine tuberculosis, if hunters are not careful.

As Fiona Kelleher reported for the Detroit Free Press, testing recently found bovine tuberculosis (TB) in a large beef herd in Alcona County, Michigan, the 73rd cattle herd in Michigan to be identified with the disease since 1998. Michigan officials have also detected bovine TB in free-ranging whitetail deer in the northeastern Lower Peninsula of the State. So bovine TB or not TB, that is the question for deer hunters in Michigan, because Mycobacterium bovis has the potential of being passed from cattle to deer to human.

M. bovis is very closely related to Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that most commonly causes human tuberculosis. In fact, M. bovis can lead to the same type of symptoms and problems in humans, being the cause of under 230 human TB cases each year (or less than 2% of all human TB cases) in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). M bovis can be as dangerous as M tuberculosis TB, and you certainly don’t want your M TB. TB can be a very serious disease that most commonly infects the lungs but can also affect your heart, liver, kidneys, spine, joints, and brain. Fever, night sweats, and weight loss are common symptoms. TB can be a killer if you don’t get proper treatment in a timely manner.

Here is a Canadian Food Inspection Agency video on M. bovis infections:

Fortunately, the routine pasteurization of cow’s milk has greatly reduced the largest source of human M. bovis infections, drinking milk from an infected cow. But if you feel that life is too safe and still want to catch M. bovis from an infected cow, you can always drink raw milk.

You could also in theory catch M. bovis when you breathe in the bacteria coughed or sneezed out by an infected animal such as a cow, bison, elk, or deer coughs or sneezes. After all, such animals aren’t very good at covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze. However, unless you are spending some serious time with the animals or sharing a hookah with them, this doesn’t seem to be a very common mode of transmission.

Once infected, humans can pass M. bovis to other humans just as they can pass M. tuberculosis 

The biggest concerns about the appearance of bovine TB in Michigan are how it’s going to affect the cattle and deer populations and whether it may spread to anyone who handles the raw or under-cooked meat of infected animals. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is warning hunters to look for signs of infection such as weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, unusual lesions, or abnormalities in the lungs. However, infected animals can look normal, and deer or cows won’t typically tell you when they have night sweats or a positive TB skin test. Therefore, if you go hunting, assume that all deer could potentially be infected. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling deer meat. Make sure that you adequately cook any meat that you eat. This is not the time to try deer sushi or tartare.   

If you are a farmer or just happen to keep herds of cattle around your apartment or house, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service recommends that you get your livestock tested for TB and only buy animals from an accredited TB-free herd. Test animals for TB before buying them. After the purchase, isolate the animals for 60 days and retest them before allowing them to mix with the rest of your existing herd. Thoroughly disinfect any equipment that has housed any new or unknown animals, and protect your herd from contact with unknown untested animals or people who may have contact with such animals. This includes making sure that your fences are in good condition and canceling those deer-cow Meetups.

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