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What Is White Muscle Disease?

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  • Written By: Natalie M. Smith
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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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.

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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.

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.

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