Little is new under the Southwest Washington overcast.
On Sept. 11, Cory Montgomery posted to a Packwood community Facebook page a photo of an elk with hoof deformities.
All four of the elk’s hooves were overgrown.
The same thing happened on Sept. 23, 2022, with another poster in the same page, prompting an article in The Chronicle headlined “Hoof Rot or Not, WDFW Wants Reports of Elk With Limps, Misshapen Hooves.”
No matter the cause, misshapen hooves usually lead to animals going lame. Then, they die.
In the last two decades, reports of hoof rot, the colloquial term for “treponeme-associated hoof disease,” have increased in Southwest Washington. Hoof abnormalities can affect any hooved creature, including cows, sheep and horses, but hoof rot appears to be “highly infectious among elk,” according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
The disease has been more prevalent in West Lewis County than in Packwood or Randle, WDFW’s website states. With diligent citizen reporting, wildlife biologists hope to minimize the spread of this disease.
But Montgomery’s elk did not have hoof rot.
WDFW’s wildlife veterinarian and several biologists evaluated the photo and determined the deformity was likely caused by laminitis, not hoof rot. Laminitis, which also affects horses and donkeys, is inflammation in the hooves according to WDFW’s ungulate (hooved animal) specialist, Kyle Garrison. He diagnosed the 2022 elk with the same condition.
Though overgrown hooves are one common sign, hoof rot doesn’t tend to affect all four hooves at once, Garrison said, while laminitis can.
“The causes of laminitis vary and without having the animal and its hooves available for further examination, we can’t say much more about this animal,” Garrison wrote in an email last week. “I recommend the public report observations like this, or other sick or injured wildlife, to WDFW’s reporting tool” atbit.ly/WDFW-Sick-Report-Tool.
Once present, both laminitis and hoof rot are unstoppable.
Still, the public has a role to play in slowing the spread of disease and preventing laminitis by reporting these incidents. Likewise, members of the public can help prevent hoof issues for elk by never purposely feeding them.
Laminitis is often associated with inappropriate feeding, especially diets “really rich in carbohydrates,” Garrison said in an interview with The Chronicle last year. “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.
In general, WDFW always encourages folks to let animals “make their living out in the wild,” Garrison said last year, 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.”
Living things on Earth are categorized by domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. One “order” of hooved creatures, called even-toed ungulates — such as deer, sheep, giraffes and elk — are more closely related to whales and dolphins than to another hooved order known as odd-toed ungulates, such as horses and rhinoceroses.
Another way of putting this: Elk and orca whales are closer to cousins than deer are to zebras.
All hooved animals evolved from a common ancestor, but those species are divided into two orders: Perissodactyla, which includes equines such as zebra and horses; and Artiodactyla, a larger order which itself divides into two sections. Those are ruminants and descendants of the hippopotamus. While the latter don’t have hooves, the category includes cetaceans, the “family” name for whales, porpoises and dolphins.