White Muscle Disease

by: Dr. G.F. Kennedy

I observe this disease primarily in our area as a Vitamin E deficiency. We are selenium sufficient. The following I took directly out of the Norman Gates, D.V.M. book “Sheep Disease Management” that we revised in 2000.

       White muscle disease is the result of degeneration of skeletal and cardiac muscles in lambs. It is most common in areas where lambs receive good quality feed and are fast growing.It is usually an acute disease that manifests itself in fast growing lambs at three to eight weeks of age.

       Cause: The disease is a manifestation of lack of Selenium, Vitamin E or both. There are Selenium deficient areas within the country predominately in the state of Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio in the north central region of the US. Selenium is also deficient in the NW, Washington, and Oregon. Vitamin E and Selenium are Antioxidents. They are important in the repair of tissue at the cellular level and have sparing effect on each other. While the leg muscles are generally affected first any muscle area including cardiac muscle may be affected. Chronic or borderline deficiencies may result in lung edema resulting in increased pneumonia problems. It is quite common for the disease to show up after forced exercise, vaccination procedures, sorting, weaning, fitting or being chases by dogs or children.

       Symptoms: Diagnosis is based on clinical symptoms of stiffness, swollen hindquarters or lambs may be simply down. Animals are generally bright and alert and will continue to eat and drink if possible. For those that are mobile they may have arched backs, and appear to have tucked in flanks. Differential diagnosis from tetanus is made on the basis that tetanus lambs become very rigid while the lambs with white muscle become flaccid. Lambs with intestinal displacement act similar but exhibit pain and generally die within hours and usually fewer are affected. Laboratory confirmation is achieved by histological examination of affected muscle.

       Treatment: Treatment is accomplished by the use of both Vitamin E and Selenium because the condition may be caused by a deficiency of Selenium, Vitamin E or both. Since the two elements compliment each other both are used in treatment. Selenium is more important in selenium deficient areas and Vitamin E in Selenium sufficient areas or diets.The injectable Selenium, Vitamin E product that is available does not contain adequate levels of Vitamin E. Once adequate levels of Selenium have been reached which can be accomplished with one injection, do not repeat because it is very easy to cause acute Selenium Toxicity, which can result in sudden death. Additional Vitamin E-300 should be given with initial selenium injection. Vitamin E injection should be repeated as needed. Dexamethasone helps give symptomatic relief and antibiotics should be used to prevent pneumonia.

     Oral Vitamin E products Vitamin E Liquid and Emcelle Tocopherol may be added to drinking water. This allows for increased assimilation of Vitamin E and does not cause forced exercise of lambs as injections will.

       Prevention: A prevention program is dependent on a definitive diagnosis. Blood and tissue levels of Selenium and Vitamin E are necessary in order to determine the proper supplementation. Selenium may be provided by injection, feed or salt. We believe that oral administration is safer and cost effective. In selenium deficient areas both feed and salt may be utilized.

       Vitamin E supplementation in fast growing lambs is always essential. It is of particular importance in northern areas with early born lambs. Lambs are particularly susceptible if ewes have been fed one year of older hay. Actually hay looses its Vitamin E values in December and ewes have some storage capacity.

       Colostrum levels of Vitamin E increase with ewe supplementation. Ewes may be fed Vitamin E prior to lambing, a therapeutic dose two to four weeks before lambing works well. Gestation rations may be constantly supplemented with Vitamin E 40,000 units per ton on a complete ration basis. Since Vitamin E is not transmitted from dam to fetus, transmission through colostrum is important. At birth lambs should receive at least 200 IU Vitamin E repeated at three weeks if necessary. This may be injected or given orally. There are high energy oral products containing Vitamin E that work very well particularly for the first treatment, Baby Lamb SrengthOral.

      Vitamin E may be supplemented at the rate of 125,000 IU per ton in creep feed. 80,000 IU per ton in the growing rations and 40,000 IU per ton in the finishing rations. If these levels do not correct the situation professional advice from a veterinarian is advised.

Our selenium/ iodine premixes one of which contains Vitamin E that can be mixed with loose with salt are the most economical way to combat this disease.

In areas where sheep are on grass most of the year, Vitamin E levels may be adequate requiring only selenium supplementation.

About Ask-a-Vet Sheep

Veterinary services, procedures, biologicals, and drugs mentioned in this publication represent the personal opinions and clinical observations of the contributing author. They are in no way intended to be interpreted as recommendations without the consent of the producer’s own practicing Veterinarian. We strongly urge that producers establish a patient-client-veterinarian relationship that allows extra-label use when there are no drugs approved for treatment or if approved drugs are not effective. This procedure allows veterinarians to go beyond label directions when “prudent use” is necessary. The limited availability of drugs and biologics in this country is a major factor in restricting the growth of the sheep industry and allowing producers to compete in the world market place.
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