Elk Hoof Disease

WSU Research

WSU mandate

With the strong support of a group of concerned citizens, the Washington state legislature passed SB 5474 in 2017. The legislation provides state funding to address elk hoof disease with the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine leading the research effort. In August 2018, WSU hired Dr. Margaret Wild, who has spent her career investigating diseases in elk, to lead the effort.

Research questions

Ultimately, we hope to learn the cause of the disease and provide information to wildlife agencies for successful management it in the wild. It will take many steps to reach that goal. At this point, our plan is initially to:

Study disease causes and contributing factors in captive elk.

We will use captive elk in a controlled environment to learn about the causes of the disease and contributing factors, such as nutritional condition and exposure to herbicides, that may make elk more or less susceptible. This information could directly inform management and mitigation, help us better understand the risk (to elk and other species), and serve as input needed for computer models of disease impacts. The WSU elk facility is currently in the design and construction stage. We anticipate captive elk studies beginning in late 2019.

Study disease agents in the lab.

Using modern laboratory technology called metagenomics we are looking at all the genetic material contained in samples from diseased hooves to identify which bacteria are associated with hoof disease. This work will guide improvement of methods to isolate the causative agent(s) and develop tests to better detect, and potentially treat or prevent, them.

Conduct regional surveillance.

We are collecting hoof samples from across Washington and other states in the Northwest to determine where the disease occurs and whether or not the pathogens, and other contributing factors, involved are the same in every area. This will provide baseline data to measure changes over time. It will also help determine whether the disease is one outbreak that is spreading, or multiple independent outbreaks.

Understand the social aspects of the disease.

We are collaborating with the WSU Social and Economic Sciences Research Center to conduct a social science inquiry to understand stakeholder’s beliefs, their values, and specific concerns about the disease and elk management. This information will guide outreach and education efforts, assist wildlife agencies and elected officials, and contribute to goal setting for research and management.

Collaborate with WDFW.

We are collaborating with WDFW research and management as requested. Importantly, WDFW is the state’s agency responsible for management of wildlife resources, despite WSU’s role in elk hoof disease. WDFW is coordinating submission of hooves to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) at WSU for diagnostic evaluation by specially trained veterinary pathologists and for research use.

Looking forward

As our foundational understanding of hoof disease grows, we will investigate additional questions.

Model disease spread.

Future plans are to use computer models to study disease spread and identify factors contributing to disease occurrence. It can also compare expected and observed disease spread to determine whether or not management actions altered the spread. 

Immune response.

After conducting the basic work on the causes of hoof disease, we will study the immune response in captive elk. Findings will help us understand if some elk are more susceptible than others due to poor immune systems and their ability to fight the disease. It may also help identify potential preventive or treatment methods.

Prevention and treatment.

There is currently no treatment for elk hoof disease. After we learn more about causes of the disease, we will pursue prevention or treatment options for individual animals as is reasonable and appropriate for wildlife. Similar infections in cattle are treated with intensive management using foot baths and application of antibiotics. These types of treatments are not feasible for wild free-ranging elk so innovative approaches will need to be explored.

Outreach and education.

Raising public awareness and informing the public about the disease and its potential impacts is an important part of our work. We will continue and expand our interactions with citizens, professional groups, and policy makers. We will listen to concerns and input on studies and will share our research findings.