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What Is White Muscle Disease?

Natalie M. Smith
Natalie M. Smith

White muscle disease is a degenerative disease that can occur in various large animals, including sheep, cattle, and goats. The condition is characterized by the way it affects the skeletal or cardiac system, resulting in mobility issues and pneumonia-like symptoms. Additionally, the muscles of affected animals take on a white chalky appearance. It is caused by a lack of dietary selenium and/or vitamin E. Treatment and prevention options are available, but many affected animals cannot be saved.

Animals can be born with white muscle disease, also known as nutritional muscular dystrophy, or develop it later in life. Whether the condition is congenital or acquired, it is caused by selenium or vitamin E deficiency. Some regions are known for having inadequate levels of selenium in the soil; thus, any feed harvested from these areas will also have inadequate selenium. Those animals that graze often consume plenty of vitamin E from fresh pasture and legumes. Vitamin E levels often degrade significantly, however, in those animal foodstuffs that have been stored.

White muscle disease affects large animals, like goats.
White muscle disease affects large animals, like goats.

This condition can affect the skeletal or cardiac system, and sometimes both. Animals that suffer skeletal symptoms of white muscle disease might exhibit stiffness and pain when trying to move, and walk with a hunched gait. Standing might be impossible for those animals born with the condition. If the disease affects the heart, animals can have difficulty breathing, as well as fever and elevated heart rate. Affected animals also experience increasing paralysis or progressive cardiac failure and eventually expire, perhaps even suddenly.

Sheep can be affected by the degenerative disease known as white muscle disease.
Sheep can be affected by the degenerative disease known as white muscle disease.

Treatment is more likely to help animals with the skeletal form of white muscle disease. Veterinarians or other animal caretakers inject the affected animal with supplemental selenium or vitamin E, or sometimes both. Animal feed with adequate nutrient levels might also be incorporated. Similar treatment can be used on animals with cardiac white muscle disease, but, in the event that they survive, they are likely to suffer or die from any cardiac damage they sustained prior to treatment.

In regions where soil selenium levels are low, animal caretakers might attempt to prevent white muscle disease by adding supplements to their feeds. Others routinely provide supplemental injections to pregnant females weeks prior to giving birth, or inject newborns just after birth. Switching to nutrient-rich feed or other foodstuffs is another prevention strategy. Great care and precaution is necessary when using supplements to treat or prevent white muscle disease in order to avoid overdose and to abide any laws governing nutrient levels.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is White Muscle Disease?

White Muscle Disease, also known as nutritional myodegeneration, is a degenerative muscle condition found in livestock, particularly sheep and cattle. It's caused by a deficiency in selenium, vitamin E, or both, leading to muscle weakness and sometimes heart failure. Early detection and treatment are crucial for the animal's recovery.

How do animals contract White Muscle Disease?

Animals contract White Muscle Disease primarily through a diet deficient in selenium and vitamin E. These nutrients are vital for muscle health. Regions with selenium-poor soil may contribute to the prevalence of the disease, as plants grown there would lack this essential mineral, thus affecting the animals that graze on them.

What are the symptoms of White Muscle Disease in animals?

Symptoms of White Muscle Disease include stiffness, difficulty standing or walking, muscle tremors, and in severe cases, sudden death due to heart failure. Affected animals may also exhibit difficulty in swallowing, which can lead to aspiration pneumonia, further complicating their health status.

Can White Muscle Disease be treated?

Yes, White Muscle Disease can be treated if caught early. Treatment typically involves injections of selenium and vitamin E, under veterinary guidance. Supportive care, such as providing easy access to food and water, is also important. Prevention through dietary supplementation is the best strategy to protect herd health.

Is White Muscle Disease contagious?

No, White Muscle Disease is not contagious. It is a nutritional deficiency and does not spread from animal to animal. However, if multiple cases occur within a herd, it indicates a widespread issue with the diet or the environment that needs to be addressed to prevent further occurrences.

How can White Muscle Disease be prevented?

Prevention of White Muscle Disease involves ensuring that animals have a diet sufficient in selenium and vitamin E. This can be achieved through supplements or by providing feed that is fortified with these nutrients. Regular soil and feed testing can help identify potential deficiencies in the environment, allowing for proactive management.

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    • White muscle disease affects large animals, like goats.
      By: Gerhard Seybert
      White muscle disease affects large animals, like goats.
    • Sheep can be affected by the degenerative disease known as white muscle disease.
      By: dinosmichail
      Sheep can be affected by the degenerative disease known as white muscle disease.