Health Advice for Harvesting, Preparing, and Eating Wild Game

buck standing in woods

At a Glance

Advice for Hunters

  • Only harvest animals that look and act healthy; animals suspected of having rabies or chronic wasting disease should not be harvested.
  • Reduce exposure to lead in meat by using non-lead ammunition or bow hunting.
  • If hunting out of state, be aware of additional health warnings regarding disease and contaminants in game where you are hunting.

Advice for Butchering Harvested Game

  • Wear nitrile, rubber or latex gloves when field dressing, skinning, and butchering game to avoid contact with bacteria, viruses, and parasites that may be present in the animal.
  • If lead bullets were used, generously remove portions that may be affected by bullets.

Advice for Consumers

  • Pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children should avoid venison harvested with lead bullets; see additional consumption advice below.

Table of Contents


Hunting provides contact with nature and healthy exercise, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll harvest locally-sourced food that can be delicious and nutritious! While deer are most popular, some hunters enjoy a variety of game such as bear, rabbit, turkey, ducks, geese, squirrel, and others. Make sure the animal is acting normally before harvesting and follow the good sanitary practices outlined below. Always check the DEC website for information on special licenses and appropriate seasons if applicable.

Good Sanitary Practices

Follow these good sanitary practices to minimize the risk of bacteria and diseases like rabies and Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) when handling or processing animals.

Do not handle or eat game or waterfowl that appear sick, act strangely, or are found dead. Handling animals with suspected rabies or CWD should be avoided and meat from infected game should never be eaten.

Hand and Tool Hygiene

  • Wear nitrile, rubber or latex gloves when field dressing, skinning, and butchering game.
  • It’s especially important to wear gloves when your hands have cuts or open sores.
  • Wash hands, tools and work surfaces with soap and water before handling any raw food, including game meat.
  • After butchering, wash tools, work surfaces, and your hands, arms or other exposed body parts thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Rinse tools and work surfaces with either boiling water (212°F) or sanitize with a bleach solution or chemical sanitizer.
  • Butchering tools should never be used for any other purpose. Keep butchering tools separate from utensils regularly used in the kitchen.

Warning: Bleach should only be diluted with water. Never mix it with ammonia or other chemicals. Add bleach to water, not vice versa. Always wear nitrile, rubber or latex gloves when handling bleach and avoid getting it in eyes, skin or clothing. When there is contact, immediately wash affected areas with water and remove affected clothing. Use bleach in well ventilated areas because it may cause eye, nose, or throat irritation.

Butchering Considerations

  • Discard intestines. Remove them soon after harvest and avoid direct contact with intestinal contents.
  • Remove all bullets, slugs, shot, bullet fragments, debris and affected meat (including feathers, fur, bone, etc.) from game when preparing it for consumption.
  • Avoid handling or cutting through the skull or spinal cord. If removing antlers, use separate dedicated knives, saws and cutting boards.
    • If you take the skull cap (with antlers), thoroughly clean the skull cap, utensils and work surfaces with bleach solution, as described above.
    • Avoid handling the brain and spinal tissues or fluids, saliva and mouth parts of game animals.
    • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water if these are handled.
  • Game should be kept cool (with ice or refrigerated below 45℉ or 7℃) until butchered (including big game hanging for several days) and then the meat refrigerated or frozen.
  • Cook all game and birds to at least 165℉ (74℃) in the thickest part of the meat.

Although no current evidence links CWD to human health, out of abundance of caution, we recommend that people not consume a known or suspected CWD-positive animal. CWD is uncommon in New York, but when hunting in a region where it is more common, take these additional precautions when butchering and preparing game:

  • The brain, spinal cord and other nervous tissue, spleen, pancreas, eyes, tonsils, and lymph nodes of game may have abnormal infectious proteins called CWD prions. Other organs (liver, kidney, heart and salivary glands) may also pose a risk of infection.
  • Normal field dressing will eliminate most of these organs and tissues. Lymph nodes can be eliminated by boning out the meat and carefully trimming the fat and connective tissue.
  • Soak cleaned knives and tools for one hour in a fresh solution of household chlorine bleach (unscented) mixed with an equal amount of water (for example, 1-quart bleach with 1-quart water), air dry, then rinse with clean water.
  • Wipe down cleaned counters and other surfaces with the bleach solution and allow them to air dry.

About Chronic Wasting Disease

CWD is a disease of deer and elk. It has been present for several years in Western and mid-Western states and some Canadian provinces. No cases of CWD have been detected in New York State since 2005 when it was found in captive and wild white-tailed deer.

CWD is a brain infection in these animals that leads to:

  • loss of body functions
  • poor body condition
  • abnormal behavior such as staggering or very poor posture
  • eventual death of the animal

CWD appears to be caused by abnormal, infectious proteins called prions. Cooking does not remove the risk of CWD. However, there is currently no evidence that CWD in animals is linked to disease in people.

For additional information

About Rabies

Rabies is a viral infection which causes a rapidly progressive disease of the animal's nervous system that leads to paralysis and death, usually within several days after signs of the disease first appear. Rabies can be found in any mammal (especially raccoons, bats, skunks and foxes), but is found only occasionally in New York State deer.

Rabid animals may:

  • seem to lose their normal fear of humans
  • salivate excessively
  • appear to have injured hind legs
  • or be found lying on the ground struggling

Rabies can be transmitted from infected mammals to humans by exposure to infected tissues and fluids, particularly nervous tissue and saliva. Treatment can prevent rabies from developing in exposed humans. Rabies is almost always fatal in exposed humans who develop the disease.

Avoid handling rabid animals and do not eat meat from infected game.

For additional information about the risk to humans from rabies, visit the NYS DOH communicable diseases website.

Risks of Lead Shot Game and Ammunition Alternatives

Lead is toxic; there is no known safe level of lead exposure for children or adults. Game harvested with lead ammunition are of greatest concern for young children who are most harmed by the toxic effects of lead. Ballistic studies show that lead ammunition shatters into small pieces upon impact with game and may contaminate meat. These pieces can be too small to detect by sight, feel, or when eating. The best way to avoid lead exposure from eating game is to use non-lead ammunition or consider bow hunting. This is especially important if you are donating game meat. See more information about donating venison. Using non-lead ammunition also reduces risk to other wildlife (particularly bald eagles) which may consume contaminated meat or viscera from gut piles or wounded animals not found by hunters.

Lead accumulates in the human body over a lifetime, and it is released very slowly. For adults, health effects could be occurring from lead at very low levels of exposure, even if people don’t observe symptoms. Women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, those who are breastfeeding, and parents of children should carefully consider the potential risks of eating game harvested with lead ammunition. Because of these risks, DOH recommends that children and women of childbearing age should not eat game meat that was harvested using lead ammunition. You may want to consult with your health care provider or contact the resources linked below to learn more.

Choosing non-lead ammunition yields better meat (links to DEC website). Non-lead ammunition typically remains more intact, creates a smaller wound channel and reduces contamination from fur, dirt, bone, etc.

Images from Lead and Non-lead Demo

Hosted by the NYSDEC and North American Non-lead Partnership at the Saratoga CCE 4H Shooting Sports Center. The path and fragmentation of premium lead and non-lead bullets of the same caliber were compared by being shot into water barrels and ballistic gel.

Click to view larger versions of these images. Images from a ballistic gel test

Image showing a lead-based and copper-based bullet's path through ballistic gel. The lead bullet shows a lot of fragmenting, the copper bullet goes straight through the gel with no fragmenting.

Images from a water barrel test

Image showing a lead-based and copper-based bullet's path shot through a water barrel. The lead bullet shows a lot of fragmenting which is collected after shooting into a container by draining the water through a sieve, the copper bullet doesn't fragment, and one of the demonstrators holds the intact, petaled copper round.

Processing Tips for Reducing Exposure from Lead-Shot Game

  • Discard meat with excessive bullet damage. Trim a generous distance away from bullet wound channels and discard bruised or discolored meat, as well as meat contaminated with fur, dirt, bone fragments or plant material.
  • If using a commercial processor, ask them to process your deer separately from others and request they trim generously around the wound channel.
  • Ground meat from lead-shot game tends to contain more lead fragments than whole muscle cuts. If you grind, clean your meat grinder regularly.

Lead Exposure at Firing Ranges

People can be exposed to lead from shooting at indoor and outdoor firing ranges.

Learn more from Aim at Lead Safety - Reducing Lead at Indoor Firing Ranges

Health Advice for Eating Waterfowl and Snapping Turtles

NYS DOH issues health advice about limiting the amount of waterfowl and snapping turtles you eat because of chemical contamination.

Note: The use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting is prohibited in New York State, and waterfowl hunters are required to use NYS DEC approved non-lead shot alternatives.

Wild Waterfowl (Contaminants: PCBs, mirex, chlordane, DDT)

Waterfowl Advice for Everyone
Mergansers DON’T EAT
All other waterfowl Up to 2 meals/month

Tips for Reducing Exposures:

Wood ducks and Canada geese are better choices than other wild waterfowl because they have lower contaminant levels. Dabbler ducks, which accumulate less chemicals, are a better choice than diving ducks.

Skin and remove all fat before cooking, and discard stuffing after cooking.

Special Advice for Hudson River Waterfowl due to PCBs

  • Avoid harvesting waterfowl from the Hudson River between Hudson Falls (Washington County) and Troy (Rensselaer County) due to PCBs. Instead harvest your waterfowl from other areas on the Hudson River or other waters.
  • In all other waters, harvest waterfowl during the early season when many birds are likely to be resident waterfowl (non-migratory).
  • Because PCBs may have a greater effect on young children or the unborn child, it is particularly important for women under 50 and children under 15 to follow this advice and minimize their PCB exposures.

Snapping Turtles (Contaminants: PCBs)

Population Advice
Sensitive population: Women of childbearing
years and children
General population: Everyone else Avoid eating snapping turtles that come from
a waterbody with PCB advisories for fish (

Tips for Reducing Exposures:

Reduce your exposure by carefully trimming away and discarding all fat, liver and eggs prior to cooking the meat or preparing soup.

Snapping turtles retain contaminants in their fat, liver, eggs and, to a lesser extent, muscle.

How to Handle Harvested Game

View these videos from Purdue Extension for best wild game harvest practices.

Warning: this content can be disturbing to some viewers and is intended for educational purposes.

Recipes and Food Preservation

Eating locally-sourced wild game can be an excellent choice for the whole family. Check out these great recipes for venison meatballs, duck kabobs, and roasted wild turkey, from the Wild Harvest Table website.

Ways to process and store meat for future use: Proper Processing of Wild Fish & Game

More Information

NYS Department of Health

    Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment

  • More information about game advisories:
  • Bureau of Occupational Health and Injury Prevention

  • More about lead exposure:

NYS Department of Environmental Conservation

NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets

Information on venison donation programs and where to find processors: