Jul 06 2015

White Muscle Disease

White Muscle Disease

          Enzootic Muscular Dystrophy, commonly known as White Muscle Disease, is a common syndrome in young calves freshly turned out on pasture in the spring.    White Muscle Disease is a depletion of Vitamin E and/or Selenium.  Selenium and Vitamin E are essential components of cattle and sheep diets.

White Muscle Disease is a deficiency of either vitamin E or Selenium resulting in excessive oxidative damage to cells.  As the muscle, such as the heart, diaphragm, leg muscles and tongue are used, they produce toxins called free radicals.  Free radicals are extremely damaging to cells in muscles and other organs, as they destroy the cells resulting in pain, inflammation, and weakness.  In food producing animals such as cattle and sheep, muscle cells are the most susceptible.  Vitamin E and Selenium are natural anti-oxidants that scavenge free radicals and eliminate their potency.

There are a few different clinical syndromes.  The most common type is the skeletal form.  This is seen in calves, lambs and uncommonly foals.  In this form the limb muscles, heart muscles and the muscles of respiration are affected.  It generally occurs in calves at approximately one month of age, lambs at 2 weeks and foal less than one week.  Clinical signs of Skeletal White Muscle Disease are weakness, stiffness and trembling.  Many calves will lay under their dam nursing.  There are no overt signs of illness, just reluctance to stand.

Another manifestation of the disease is the congenital form, meaning they are born deficient.  These cases are poorly documented and rare as Selenium readily crosses the placenta during gestation.  There is also a rare heart form of the disease, where calves have difficulty breathing, high heart rate or are found dead.  This occurs in very young animals.  Low Selenium can also contribute to retained placentas, reduced immune systems, poor fertility and simply, poor doing cattle.

Diagnosis of White Muscle Disease is generally based on clinical signs and history.  Often, the same herds and pastures will be affected year after year.  A quick and inexpensive test can be run on the lamb or calf’s urine to help with the diagnosis.  In herds where many calves are being lost, a trace mineral analysis on the animal’s blood can be run through the lab.

Other diseases that may appear similar in calves include spinal or leg injury, scours, septic arthritis and spinal abscesses.  Lambs can also suffer from a disease known as “Sway Back” that can look very close to White Muscle Disease.

Treatment of White Muscle Disease involves administering injectable formulations such as Dystocel or E-SE.  All the injectable products provide sufficient Selenium, but minimal Vitamin E.  In these products, the Vitamin E acts as a Preservative.  The calves should be kept warm, protected from predators and they need to be fed.  Some animals will require anti-inflammatories to hasten their recovery.  Prognosis for calves is excellent.  Rapid improvement should be noted within two treatments.  If no progress is made, veterinary attention should be sought.

If you have any questions regarding the above information or any questions/concerns in general, please contact Twin Valley VHS at 745-6642.


Dr. Justin Noble DVM

Twin Valley Veterinary Health Services


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