Elk Hoof Disease

Elk Hoof Disease

David Sparks Ph.D.
David Sparks Ph.D.
Elk hoof disease causes lame elk because of misshapen or missing hooves. Test results of diseased hooves sent to five diagnostic laboratories since 2013 point to infectious treponeme bacteria, which have been linked to digital dermatitis in domestic sheep and cattle. The condition initially appeared in southwestern Washington elk herds between the late 1990's and early 2000s. A dramatic rise in reports of limping elk in 2007-2008 prompted a scientific investigation into the underlying cause. Elk with the disease can have deformed, overgrown, broken or sloughed hooves. These lesions can be painful and cause limping or lameness when walking. Some bull elk also have deformities of the opposite antler depending on the timing of the hoof infection with antler growth.

What causes the disease?

Scientists are still working to understand this disease better. The emergence of the disease is likely due to multiple factors related to the environment, overall health of the elk, and the presence of an infectious organism. Independent laboratories from the US and abroad that have detected bacteria in the genus Treponema causing damage in the affected hooves.

How does it spread?

This is still unknown but it is believed that this type of bacteria can be maintained and/ or transferred in moist soil via the hooves of elk and/ or other animals such as sheep and cows.

Is this disease affecting a specific age class or sex?

No. Elk hoof disease appears to be affecting all ages and both sexes of elk.

Where are we seeing hoof disease?

The disease is currently most predominant in southwest Washington, north of the Columbia River and has become more prevalent and widespread since the winter of 2007-2008. In Oregon, several hunter-harvested elk with suspicious hoof abnormalities and reports of limping elk have been reported from around the state. The first confirmed case came from Washington County in January of 2014 and initially clustered in northwest Oregon. Since then, confirmed cased of TAHD have been identified in Roosevelt elk in multiple counties as far south as Marion and Benton counties. Cases are scattered but occurring east of the Cascades in rocky mountain elk.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recently awarded Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine a $100,000 grant to assist with construction of its elk hoof disease research facility. Construction began in May.

Dr. Margaret Ann Wild of the university says she is eager to start research on captive elk that will be housed in the facility. WSU's $1.2 million, state-of-the-art structure is the only such operation of its kind in the world and will house captive elk needed to study the disease in a secure, controlled environment. It will cover four acres and include ten isolations pens, a handling facility and two 1.5-acre holding pastures.

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