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Researchers at Washington State University find that elk hoof disease spreads in soil

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 17, 2021

WSU scientists are researching a rapidly spreading disease that causes elk to suffer deformed hooves, lameness and increasingly poor health that often can lead to death.  ((Photo from WSU Elk Hoof Disease Research project))
WSU scientists are researching a rapidly spreading disease that causes elk to suffer deformed hooves, lameness and increasingly poor health that often can lead to death. ((Photo from WSU Elk Hoof Disease Research project))
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Scientists at Washington State University’s Elk Hoof Disease Research team have discovered healthy elk can contract the debilitating ailment by contact with contaminated soil.

The disease first surfaced in Western Washington several years ago and has been detected throughout the state, north-central Idaho, Oregon and California. Officially known as Treponeme-associated hoof disease, or TAHD, it causes lesions on elks’ hooves that can progress to abnormal growths. It is not always fatal, but impairs afflicted elk, making it harder for them to move, find food and escape predators.

Researchers have long suspected elk can pass the ailment to one another through soil. According to a WSU news release, that theory has been confirmed.

“Our preliminary results indicate that TAHD can be transmitted to otherwise healthy elk through exposure to soil contaminated with hooves from affected elk,” professor Margaret Wild said.

Wild, a wildlife disease veterinarian, leads the WSU Elk Hoof Disease research program.

“It is still unknown if other factors, such as an elk’s nutritional condition or exposure to chemicals, promotes the disease, but our findings show the infection can occur without these added insults,” she said.

A study conducted by WSU graduate student Zach Robinson led to the finding. Robinson is from Longview, Washington, one of the areas where the disease has been present for years.

“I grew up hearing about and seeing this disease firsthand,” he said. “It is very difficult to see elk suffering and wasting away and not know why or how this is happening. I was very excited to join the WSU team, and our discovery now provides a pathway for additional studies that hopefully will benefit these important animals.”

Six healthy elk calves captured from central Washington were brought to the school’s elk research center and housed in “biosecure stalls.” Pesticide- and herbicide-free soil obtained from an area near Mount St. Helens was placed in the stalls. Some of the study elk were exposed to soil treated with ground-up hooves of animals that died from the ailment, while another group was exposed to soil with ground elk hooves taken from animals without the disease.

The animals exposed to contaminated soil began to develop symptoms within two to three months and had moderate infections within four months. According to the news release, the infected animals were euthanized before the symptoms reached the point of causing debilitating pain.

Now researchers are working to identify the bacteria found in the hooves of infected elk.

Wild and Kyle Garrison of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will present the finding and talk about the disease during a Zoom meeting from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday.

Anyone wishing to participate may go to bit.ly/3tH14MB. The meeting identification is 928 0687 3518, and the passcode is 264671.

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