White-tailed deer (WTD; Odocoileus virginianus) are a critical species for ecosystem function and wildlife management. As such, studies of cause-specific mortality among WTD have long been used to understand population dynamics. However, detailed pathological information is rarely documented for free-ranging WTD, especially in regions with a high prevalence of chronic wasting disease (CWD). This leaves a significant gap in understanding how CWD is associated with disease processes or comorbidities that may subsequently alter broader population dynamics. We investigated unknown mortalities among collared WTD in southwestern Wisconsin, USA, an area of high CWD prevalence. We tested for associations between CWD and other disease processes and used a network approach to test for co-occurring disease processes. Predation and infectious disease were leading suspected causes of death, with high prevalence of CWD (42.4%; of 245 evaluated) and pneumonia (51.2%; of 168 evaluated) in our sample. CWD prevalence increased with age, before decreasing among older individuals, with more older females than males in our sample. Females were more likely to be CWD positive, and although this was not statistically significant when accounting for age, females were significantly more likely to die with end-stage CWD than males and may consequently be an underrecognized source of CWD transmission. Presence of CWD was associated with emaciation, atrophy of marrow fat and hematopoietic cells, and ectoparasitism (lice and ticks). Occurrences of severe infectious disease processes clustered together (e.g., pneumonia, CWD), as compared to noninfectious or low-severity processes (e.g., sarcocystosis), although pneumonia cases were not fully explained by CWD status. With the prevalence of CWD increasing across North America, our results highlight the critical importance of understanding the potential role of CWD in favoring or maintaining disease processes of importance for deer population health and dynamics.
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Vol. 58 • No. 4