The known host range of naturally-occurring transmissible spongiform encephalopathies has expanded in recent years to include wild ruminants. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) occurs in mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus hemionus) and Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) in Colorado and Wyoming, United States of America. These species belong to the family Cervidae. Cases have occurred primarily in captive animals but a few affected free-ranging animals have been identified. Clinical disease in both species is characterised by progressive weight loss, behavioural alterations and excessive salivation. In deer polydipsia and polyuria also commonly occur. Significant lesions are confined to the central nervous system and consist of spongiform change in grey matter, intraneuronal vacuolation, astrocytosis and amyloid plaques. Inflammatory reaction is absent. The origin of this disease is not known. In contrast to the cases of spongiform encephalopathy recognised in five species of antelope (family Bovidae) in British zoological parks, which are an extension of the current bovine spongiform encephalopathy epizootic, CWD is not the result of food-borne exposure to the infectious agent. CWD appears to be maintained within captive populations by lateral and, possibly, maternal transmission. Spongiform encephalopathies in wild ruminants are currently geographically isolated and involve relatively small numbers of animals. However, these potentially transmissible diseases could be of greater importance in the future and should be viewed with concern in the light of international movements of wild ruminants and the current expansion of the game farming and ranching industry in many parts of the world.