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Washington State to study hoof disease in elkWashington State to study hoof disease in elk

Hoof abnormalities in elk strongly associated with treponeme bacteria, which are known to cause digital dermatitis in cattle, sheep and goats.

Tim Lundeen 1

July 13, 2017

4 Min Read
Washington State to study hoof disease in elk

Washington State University (WSU) College of Veterinary Medicine dean Bryan Slinker has convened the first Elk Hoof Disease (EHD) committee meeting as a follow-up to funded legislation that directs the university’s research engagement with respect to EHD.

“Washington taxpayers and the legislature made it clear: EHD is a priority disease issue,” Slinker said. “Together, they fully funded a research program for WSU, and from here on, it’s time to get to work and develop some answers.”

WSU’s veterinary college will launch an effort that includes, but is not limited to, continued collaboration with the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), the Washington Department of Agriculture, Native American tribes and other national and international agencies that can lend expertise and field activities.

The legislation (SB 5474) was sponsored by state Sen. Kirk Pearson, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources & Parks Committee. The recently passed state budget includes $1.52 million for the effort at WSU.

The dean’s initial committee met July 7. The legislation takes effect July 21. The group was comprised of research faculty, unit heads from the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and the department of veterinary microbiology and pathology, along with fiscal and communication staff.

The purpose of the meeting was to immediately begin mapping out the details of how the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine will add EHD research into its portfolio of wildlife disease research programs and how the new EHD program will coordinate with WDFW.

“A job description for a new research scientist to head the program is being written, laboratory space in Pullman (Wash.) is being identified and I have tasked committee members with seeking specific information to get this project underway,” Slinker said. “I anticipate this will require an ongoing communication effort that is as transparent as possible to keep public trust. We work for the public, and we want the public to follow this difficult disease research issue with us.”

According to the WDFW website, observations of elk with deformed, broken or missing hooves have increased dramatically in southwestern Washington over the past decade. Tests conducted by scientists in the U.S. and abroad show that these abnormalities are strongly associated with treponeme bacteria, which are known to cause digital dermatitis in cattle, sheep and goats.

Digital dermatitis has plagued the livestock industry for decades, but the disease has never been documented before in elk or other wildlife. WDFW said it is working with scientists, veterinarians, outdoor organizations and others to develop management strategies for elk herds affected by the disease.

Several aspects of the disease in elk are clear:

* Treponeme-associated hoof disease appears to be highly infectious among elk, but there is no evidence that it affects people.

* Tests show that the disease is limited to animals’ hooves and does not affect their meat or organs.

* There is currently no vaccine for the disease, and there are no proven options for treating it in the field.

Sightings of limping elk increase. In the late 1990s, WDFW began receiving sporadic reports of limping elk and elk with hoof deformities in the Cowlitz River Basin. Since 2008, sightings have increased rapidly and spread to 10 counties in southwestern Washington, affecting both the Mt. St. Helens and Willapa Hills elk herds.

The disease is now suspected in Clark, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific, Pierce, Skamania, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties. In 2015, five elk sampled in northwest Oregon tested positive for the treponeme bacteria associated with hoof disease.

In late 2015, evidence of treponeme-associated hoof disease was detected in an abnormal hoof taken from an elk killed in Skagit County and submitted for testing by WDFW. Additional testing is planned in early 2016 to determine whether the bacteria are the same as those found in southwestern Washington.

Digital dermatitis in livestock. First reported in Italy in 1974, digital dermatitis is a hoof disease known to cause lameness in cattle, sheep and goats. Multiple bacteria likely play a role in the disease, but treponeme bacteria are most apparent.

Bovine digital dermatitis, which emerged as a serious disease of dairy cattle in the U.S. in the 1990s, is now the leading cause of lameness in dairy cows nationwide. It has been found to occur in 70% of the nation’s dairies and is responsible for 50% of all cases of lameness in cows. Contagious ovine digital dermatitis in sheep has never been diagnosed in the U.S. but is increasingly being documented in the U.K. and Ireland.

The condition of infected livestock may improve if their hooves are trimmed and they receive repeated applications of topical antibiotics and daily footbaths. However, they frequently become re-infected after treatment, and wildlife managers do not believe this approach is feasible for treating free-ranging elk.

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