Frequently asked questions about elk hoof disease

What is elk hoof disease?

Elk hoof disease is a debilitating disease that causes sores on the feet of elk, in addition to deformed, overgrown, broken, or sloughed hooves. Affected elk are often observed limping or holding up a foot. Sporadic cases of the disease may have occurred in southwestern Washington earlier but the number of limping elk with the condition dramatically increased in 2008. 

What causes elk hoof disease?

While elk hoof disease is likely caused by a combination of factors, a spiral-shaped treponeme bacteria is routinely found in the foot infection. This finding has resulted in the name treponeme-associated hoof disease. 

It appears these bacteria are spread through contaminated environments or from elk to elk by direct contact. These bacteria, however, are likely not acting alone in causing the disease. Other factors such as overall animal health and nutrition, environmental factors, herbicides, and other disease-causing organisms that may contribute to development of disease need to be investigated.

What species are affected by elk hoof disease?

Elk hoof disease occurs in Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain elk of all ages and both sexes, but it has not been confirmed in other wildlife. Lameness and abnormal hooves in elk, deer, and other animals can be caused by a variety of diseases or injuries, so examination by specially trained veterinarians and laboratory tests are needed to diagnose elk hoof disease. Cattle, sheep, and goats can have similar diseases, called digital dermatitis, that are also caused by treponeme bacteria.

Researchers currently do not know if the diseases can be shared between livestock and elk. As a general practice, the separation of wild and domestic animals is prudent as a preventative measure to reduce the risk of any disease spread.

There is no evidence of humans contracting the disease. Humans are susceptible to some other treponeme species, which are different and cause other unrelated diseases. 

Where has elk hoof disease been found?

Elk hoof disease was first described as a local issue in southwest Washington, but the disease is now a regional concern affecting elk in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. The geographic range of elk hoof disease continues to expand with detection in most of the western counties in Washington and northern Oregon. More recently, cases have been detected in central Washington, western Idaho, southwestern Oregon, and northern California. Additional monitoring is required to determine the impact, extent, and spread of the disease over time.

Red crosses on the map indicate laboratory-confirmed cases of treponeme-associated hoof disease. Once the disease is confirmed in an area, additional laboratory testing may or may not occur, therefore, the number of crosses is not representative of the number of actual cases in an area. Shading indicates counties where a positive case has been confirmed. Data on this map came from cases submitted through the Washington Department of Fish and WildlifeOregon Department of Fish and WildlifeIdaho Department of Fish and Game, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

How is the elk hoof disease affecting elk populations?

The impact of elk hoof disease on elk populations and natural systems is not known. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports 20-90% of elk are limping in various herds in southwestern Washington. Preliminary results from WDFW research suggest diseased elk have lower survival than their healthy counterparts, but additional study is needed.

Is the meat from elk infected with elk hoof disease safe to eat?

Treponeme bacteria have not been found in the meat of affected elk, however, other infections can occur, and meat quality should always be evaluated prior to consumption. Additionally,  safety guidelines should always be considered when handling, processing, and cooking wild game meat.

Why should I care about elk hoof disease?

Elk hoof disease affects everyone who cares about wildlife and the natural world. Hunters, wildlife viewers, and conservationists are well aware of the economic, social, recreational, ecological, and intrinsic value of healthy wildlife populations. Wildlife sometimes comes into conflict with agricultural interests, and disease transmission between wildlife and livestock can be a significant concern when confirmed. Anyone concerned with animal well-being can’t help but have compassion for elk affected by this debilitating disease. And finally, society can benefit from understanding changes that are occurring in the environment that lead to the emergence of new diseases.