What is white muscle disease?

White muscle disease affects large animals such as goats.

White muscle disease is a degenerative disease that can occur in many large animals, such as sheep, cattle, and goats. The condition is characterized by the way it affects the skeletal or cardiac system, causing mobility problems and pneumonia-like symptoms. In addition, the muscles of affected animals take on a whitish chalky appearance. It is caused by a lack of selenium and/or vitamin E in the diet. Treatment and prevention options are available, but many affected animals cannot be saved.

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

Animals can be born with white muscle disease, also known as nutritional muscular dystrophy, or develop it later. Whether the condition is congenital or acquired, it is caused by a deficiency of selenium or vitamin E. Some regions are known to have inadequate levels of selenium in the soil; therefore, any food grown in these areas will also have inadequate selenium. Grazing animals often get a lot of vitamin E from fresh grasses and legumes. However, vitamin E levels are often significantly degraded in pet foods that have been stored.

This condition can affect the skeletal or cardiac system, and sometimes both. Animals suffering from skeletal symptoms of white muscle disease may experience stiffness and pain when attempting to move and walk hunched over. Standing up can be impossible for animals born with the disease. If the disease affects the heart, animals may experience shortness of breath, as well as fever and increased heart rate. Affected animals also have increasing paralysis or progressive heart failure and eventually die, perhaps even suddenly.

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The 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 a selenium supplement or vitamin E, or sometimes both. Pet foods with adequate nutrient levels can also be incorporated. A similar treatment can be used in animals with white muscle disease of the heart, but if they survive, they are likely to suffer or die from any heart damage they sustained before treatment.

In regions where soil selenium levels are low, animal keepers can try to prevent white muscle disease by adding supplements to their rations. Others routinely provide supplemental injections to pregnant women weeks before delivery, or inject newborns shortly after birth. Switching to nutrient-rich kibble or other foods is another prevention strategy. Great care and caution is needed when using supplements to treat or prevent white muscle disorders to avoid overdose and to comply with all laws governing nutrient levels.

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