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White muscle disease develops in calves and lambs of dams that received selenium-deficient feed during or before gestation.  Areas where selenium is low in the forage may suffer from this condition.  High iron levels in the soil or high sulphur or arsenic can reduce selenium levels in forage.  White muscle disease can sometimes be attributed to a deficiency of vitamin E, which may be caused by large amounts of unsaturated fatty acids in the diet. White muscle disease in pastured cattle after spring turnout has been attributed to absorption of the portion of polyunsaturated fatty acids in lush grasses that escapes ruminal hydrogenation. However, in many cases of white muscle disease, selenium deficiency is present. This may be a simple deficiency caused by animals eating forage grown on selenium-deficient soils, or it may be precipitated by antagonistic effects of various metals (eg, iron, silver, copper, cobalt, cadmium, mercury, tin). High dietary intake of phosphorus has enhanced the severity of the disease and resulted in decreased liver selenium content in sheep. Application of sulphur to pasture, as elemental sulphur or gypsum, may interfere with uptake of selenium by forage plants. Also, high and low dietary calcium reduces absorption by the animal.

Some cases respond only to selenium, some only to vitamin E, others to either.

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