Susceptibility of European red deer (Cervus elaphus elaphus) to alimentary challenge with bovine spongiform encephalopathy
European red deer (Cervus elaphus elaphus) are susceptible to the agent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, one of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, when challenged intracerebrally but their susceptibility to alimentary challenge, the presumed natural route of transmission, is unknown. To determine this, eighteen deer were challenged via stomach tube with a large dose of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy agent and clinical signs, gross and histological lesions, presence and distribution of abnormal prion protein and the attack rate recorded. Only a single animal developed clinical disease, and this was acute with both neurological and respiratory signs, at 1726 days post challenge although there was significant (27.6%) weight loss in the preceding 141 days. The clinically affected animal had histological lesions of vacuolation in the neuronal perikaryon and neuropil, typical of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Abnormal prion protein, the diagnostic marker of transmissible encephalopathies, was primarily restricted to the central and peripheral nervous systems although a very small amount was present in tingible body macrophages in the lymphoid patches of the caecum and colon. Serial protein misfolding cyclical amplification, an in vitro ultra-sensitive diagnostic technique, was positive for neurological tissue from the single clinically diseased deer. All other alimentary challenged deer failed to develop clinical disease and were negative for all other investigations. These findings show that transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy to European red deer via the alimentary route is possible but the transmission rate is low. Additionally, when deer carcases are subjected to the same regulations that ruminants in Europe with respect to the removal of specified offal from the human food chain, the zoonotic risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the cause of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, from consumption of venison is probably very low.