How to Spot and Avoid Common Infectious Diseases in Game Animals

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 How to Spot and Avoid Common Infectious Diseases in Game Animals  

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As a hunter, you should always remember that game animals may have diseases that can be harmful to humans. These diseases can make you mildly ill, or they can be life threatening.  Learning how to spot and avoid getting sick is important for seasonal and subsistence hunters.  


Basic External Safety Check


Before you begin dressing the carcass, do an exterior check for signs of illness.  You should be wary of any animal that shows signs of starvation, tick or flea infestation, scabby skin, fluid discharges from body orifices, or old wounds that may be hiding gangrene. Do not just perform a visual check, put on your field dressing surgical gloves and rub your hands over the body to check for hidden problems.  

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Things to Watch for When Skinning and Dressing


Before you begin skinning or dressing the carcass, make sure that your hands, arms, and tools are clean.  Work in a clean area and dress the animal as quickly as possible after killing it.  Regardless of the diseases you are concerned about, it is always important to wear disposable gloves that cover to your elbows.  Since many pathogens can be inhaled while you are working, it is also important to wear a mask that filters out bacteria.  You may also want to wear a face shield to prevent fluid splatters from getting onto your face and near mucus membranes around your eyes.


The following may indicate the animal was sick, and is unfit to eat.  Do not attempt to consume these animals. You are better off alerting the game warden and let them address the problem.  


  • While you are skinning the carcass, the back of the skin should be soft or gelatinous.  Avoid further contact if you note a film of blood in areas other than where your projectiles hit.
  • Muscle tissue that smells bad.
  • Muscle tissue with parasites, blood spots, or blood clots.
  • Greenish discharge from organs.
  • Black blood on or inside the organs, inside the body cavity, or anywhere else in the tissue.
  • Also check the lungs and on the inside surface of the rib cage for lumps that could be signs of disease.


Other Important Precautions

Legacy Food Storage


When dressing a carcass, avoid puncturing the stomach and intestines.  If you do damage these areas,  wash out the body cavity with an antibacterial solution, alcohol rubs, or vinegar.   Avoid using water because it encourages bacterial growth. After cleaning, make sure the insides of the carcass are dry.


Clean all of your tools frequently while working in order to cut down on internal contamination.  Since some diseases are concentrated in brain or spinal tissues, avoid cutting through the spinal cord.  Never consume brain tissue from game animals.  


Storing Game Meat

Once you are done field dressing, bring the temperature of the carcass below 40 degrees as soon as  possible.  Pack the carcass with ice or freeze blocks and then tie the carcass closed.


Insofar as short term storage, you can keep fresh game meat in the refrigerator for about two days. After that, it must be frozen.  Later on, when thawing out the meat, do so in the refrigerator in a sealed container as opposed to on the counter.  


Cooking Game Meat


Even if the animal seemed healthy at the time of killing, pathogens may still be in the meat.  Most pathogens will cause symptoms such as weakness, fever, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if you don’t cook meat properly.   


The following steps will help to cut down on any illness caused by improper cooking:


  • Always keep your cooking area clean.  Scrub  all surfaces, utensils, and cooking equipment in hot soapy water before, during, and after food preparation.


  • Cook game meat until it reaches a safe internal temperature.  Research to find the correct temperature for each animal species.  Never eat under cooked, raw, or microwaved game meat.  While some may disagree, it is also best to avoid consuming smoked game meat if you aren’t absolutely certain the strips have reached, and stayed at a safe temperature for a long enough time to kill off diseases.


4 Diseases to be Especially Wary Of




Anthrax is commonly found in bison, deer, elk, and moose, and poisoning comes from the Bacillus anthracis bacteria.  There are three main forms of this disease:

  • Lung anthrax- occurs when you breathe in the bacteria.  Early symptoms include fevers, a general feeling of bad health, and a sore throat.  Later on, shortness of breath, coughing, chest pains, and respiratory failure lead to death.   
  • Gastrointestinal or digestive track anthrax- Usually not fatal, but may cause loss of appetite, vomiting, high fevers, stomach pain, and diarrhea.
  • Cutaneous or skin anthrax- This is the most common type of anthrax, and not deadly.  It starts out as a painless sore that becomes a blister; which forms an ulcer with a black center.   It is best to identify early and treat with antibiotics.


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If an animal is infected with anthrax, it may appear weak, slow moving, disoriented, or confused.  Most animals will die within hours or days of the initial onset of symptoms.  When you encounter the carcass, you may find bloody drainage from the nose, mouth, or anus.  The carcass may also bloat and decompose faster than normal.   If you suspect that an animal is infected with anthrax, immediately stop handling the carcass and leave it in place.  You will also need to inform the game warden of your suspicions and let them know where the carcass is located.  




This infection is caused by toxins from the bacteria Leptospira, which is commonly carried by deer, raccoon, beaver, and rodents.  Leptospirosis is transmitted by contact with contaminated urine and body tissue.  You can also get this disease if you consume water or other foods that came into contact with infected urine and body tissue. Since infected animals don’t show any symptoms, so you may have a hard time spotting this disease.  Even though this disease is rarely fatal in humans, it is best to avoid infection.  


  • Wear disposable gloves when handling carcasses and wash your hands afterwards.
  • Always wear boots when wading in water.
  • Always clean cuts or wounds with soap and water.


While most people will not have symptoms, others may experience high fevers, severe headaches, muscle aches, chills, and vomiting.  These will usually be followed by red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and jaundice. If you do not get treatment, the disease can cause kidney damage, liver failure, headache, stiff neck, and breathing problems.   


Orf (Contagious Ecthyma)

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This disease is caused by the Parapox virus and is common in wild sheep and goats.  If you look at the animal’s lips or inside the mouth, you might see single or multiple crusty lumps.  You may also find lesions above the hooves, on the udder, and on the face. Even though young, nursing animals are more susceptible to this disease, it can still be found in older animals.  


Orf can only be transmitted if you touch or come into contact with lesions from the disease. When skinning and dressing the animal, carefully trim away the infected tissue.  Try to prevent any contact between the edible meat and infected tissue.  

If you do get sick from Orf, you will usually experience  mild fever, swollen painful lymph nodes, and red lesions on the arm, hands, or face. Skin lesions usually disappear in six weeks without scarring.  You may still need medical attention and anti-viral medication to treat this disease.  




Tuberculosis is caused by the bacteria Bacterium Mycobacterium bovis, and is common in bison, deer, elk, and moose.  Even though some animals may appear in poor condition, others may show no signs of having this disease.  Internally, you may or may not find multiple small round crusty lumps in lymph nodes, on the lungs, and on the rib cage.


Tuberculosis is transmitted through inhaling the bacteria, which can be found in open wounds, feces, and fluids from the mouth and nose; and less commonly through openings in your skin.  While there are treatments for Tuberculosis, it can be a serious and deadly disease if left untreated.  You can avoid getting this disease from game animals by doing the following:


  • Stop handling the animal if you see pale rounded lumps on lungs, rib cage, or internal organs.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling a carcass.
  • Use a good quality face filter mask to prevent inhaling the bacterial.
  • Report your findings to the game warden.


Symptoms of the disease in people depends where the lesions are located.  If the bacteria reach the lungs, you may experience a prolonged illness with cough, fever, weight loss, night sweats, and occasionally coughing up blood.  Intestinal infections will cause diarrhea and stomach pain.


As a hunter, you should always be wary of diseases in game meat that can make you sick or kill you.  Take the time now to learn more about common game diseases in your area, as well as how to avoid getting them.  This will help ensure you have a safe, healthy hunting season, and give you confidence in your ability to hunt at the subsistence level in a time of need.


*A Scott Hughes Original for FP!

**Picture by Michigan DNR.

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