Elk in Packwood can seem as common as pigeons in Seattle, but pigeons don’t tend to stand in the roadway, sift through trash or take up residence overnight in the front lawn.
Along with the high visibility of the elk comes attention to their ailments.
On a Packwood community Facebook group earlier this month, a resident posted a photo of a female elk, or cow, with “some gnarly spikes growing out the sides” of her legs.
According to Kyle Garrison, ungulate (hooved animal) specialist with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), while it’s impossible to be certain without a veterinarian or pathologist diagnosis, the affliction was likely laminitis. He determined this by the elk’s inflamed front dew claws, which are digits on the lower leg disconnected from the bottom of the hoof.
The condition can affect horses and donkeys as well as wild ungulates such as elk and deer. It is caused by inflammation of the hoof tissue.
Laminitis is typically associated with inappropriate feeding, especially diets “really rich in carbohydrates,” Garrison said. “Ruminants can have a hard time dealing with that.”
Because elk in the Packwood and Randle areas often feed on farmlands with corn or other carbs from grains, he said, they are prone to the affliction.
“You tend to see it more in concentrated townships and lowland agricultural fields,” he said.
Commenters in the original post about the Packwood elk with misshapen hooves were quick to diagnose the cow with “hoof rot” or treponeme-associated hoof disease, a highly pervasive, severe bacterial disease that has become common in Southwest Washington, Garrison said.
Ultimately, the symptoms of these two distinct afflictions can often end the same way, in lameness and eventual death of the animal.
These issues are unstoppable once present, but Garrison said the public can play a role in slowing the spread by reporting misshapen hooves and limping elk through the WDFW website. He is one of only three ungulate specialists in the state, he said, but will make visits to the reported locations in certain cases.
“We have a dedicated webpage for these sorts of reports. If you were to Google ‘WDFW hoof disease’ on that page there is a lot of information about the disease and there is a link to report elks with deformities or a limp,” he said. “We want to know about it and we want to monitor those trends.”
Another role the public can play in helping prevent hoof issues for elk is to never purposely feed them. In general, WDFW always encourages folks to let animals “make their living out in the wild,” Garrison said, as they’ll be more likely to munch on nutritious foods their stomachs can handle.
“Human food can risk disease spread, cause problems with the neighbors, problems with the dog,” he said, adding, “It’s generally a bad idea to feed wildlife.”
To learn more about elk hoof diseases, visit https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/diseases/elk-hoof.
To help inform the agency of sickly or dead elk, click the link stating “report limping elk or elk with hoof deformities.”