Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board cautions harvesters about orf

Last modified: February 24, 2022 at 8:37am

The Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board is advising harvesters to take precautions after an image of a sheep appearing to have a contagious skin disease was captured by a wildlife camera near Aklavik.

In a Facebook post earlier this week, the board said a veterinarian looked at the photo and suspects the animal has orf or contagious ecthyma. Animals infected with orf usually develop blister-like lesions that become crusty scabs on their mouth or muzzle, and it can affect other parts of their body including the face, ears, udder and feet. 

Humans can contract orf by touching the scabs of an infected animal, or anything else that has come into contact with them. In humans, it usually results in lesions on the fingers, hands or forearms. 


“It is pretty contagious and it’s painful if you get it,” said Steve Andersen, a wildlife biologist with the Gwich’in Renewable Resources Board. “It’s pretty nasty stuff when humans get it, but it does usually clear up after four to six weeks.” 

Andersen told Cabin Radio while humans can get orf, it’s easy to avoid and meat from infected animals is still safe to eat.

He said harvesters should wear gloves, avoid cutting into the sores or blisters of an infected animal, prevent meat from coming into contact with infected skin, and to wash their hands, knives and clothes thoroughly with soap and hot water.

According to a 2017 field guide on wildlife diseases and parasites in the NWT from the territorial government, orf can be found in Dall’s sheep, mountain goats, reindeer and muskoxen, and possibly in moose, elk and caribou. In the NWT, it occasionally affects animals in the Mackenzie Mountains and Banks Island and is most common and severe in younger animals.

“It’s not super common,” Anderson said, noting this is the first time he’s seen confirmation of a sheep with orf. “We’re not particularly worried about it at this point, we mostly just want to get the information out so the harvesters know it’s there and can kind-of keep their eyes peeled for it.” 


Andersen said the photo of the infected sheep was taken in 2019 and recently discovered by a graduate student working on the Divii Project, which monitors sheep in the Richardson Mountains southwest of Aklavik through an array of wildlife cameras. 

Anderson explained researchers only collect the photographs once a year and around 150,000 images are taken annually, so it takes time to analyze them. 

“Kudos to her for noticing,” he said. “It’s easy when you’re skimming through photos quickly not to catch something like that, but yeah she’s doing a great job.”