Sporadic reports of lame elk or elk with overgrown or missing hooves have been received in southwest Washington since the mid-1990s. Reports of this "hoof disease" have been increasing, and hunters have regularly seen and sometimes harvested elk with this condition. At times, observers have reported many individuals in a group limping and showing signs of hoof disease, which has been noted in males and females and old and very young animals. Dozens of hoof diseases occur in domestic livestock. They have many different causes (infectious, metabolic, toxic, nutritional, physical) and varied modes of transmission, prevention and treatment.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is working with specialists, here and abroad, to better understand what is causing hoof disease in southwest Washington elk. Treponeme-associated hoof disease (TAHD) of elk results
in abnormal hoof growth, cavitating sole ulcers, chronic laminitis and, in
severe cases, eventual sloughing of the hoof capsule. Based on all evidence to date, the disease is
believed to be caused by infectious treponeme bacteria and most closely
resembles contagious ovine digital dermatitis in sheep. Working with
specialists throughout the USA and abroad, this diagnosis is based on test
results of diseased hooves examined by five independent diagnostic laboratories
and reviewed by a 16-member technical panel of researchers and veterinarians.
The primary area of infection is in the Cowlitz River Basin; however, suspected
incidences of hoof disease occur in southwest Washington in ten counties and
affects both the Mt. St. Helens and Willapa elk herds. It is likely that
environmental factors are important in disease initiation and propagation as
the bacteria are suspected to persist in wet soil conditions and spread to new
areas on the hooves of infected animals. We currently do not know the
prevalence of the disease, or its adverse effects on the population, and there
is not a treatment plan or vaccine available at this time.
Given this complexity, more research is needed to help us better understand and manage this problem. We are coordinating with other agencies and universities to prioritize the work needed. Even if we are able to determine what is causing this hoof disease, it will be very challenging to address it as there are likely very few, if any, treatment options for wild elk. However, understanding the cause of the disease is an important step toward understanding and managing its impacts.
The Department has established a technical advisory group composed of veterinarians and researchers and a public working group to discuss research and management questions and options, share information, and communicate with the public.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) established a Public Working Group to work together as we collectively try to better understand and address the prevalence and geographic scope of hoof disease in elk in Southwest Washington and as WDFW continues its investigation to identify and characterize the cause of this disease. The purpose of this Working Group is to provide the opportunity to share information about the hoof disease phenomenon, discuss research and management questions with regard to hoof disease, and public outreach.