Selenium Deficiency and White Muscle Disease in Goats
How and When to Supplement with Selenium or Bo-Se for Goats
Reading Time: 5 minutes
With kidding season around the corner, it’s time to talk about selenium deficiency. Selenium deficiency in goats can cause white muscle disease in goats, also known as nutritional muscular dystrophy. However, a deficiency in vitamin E can cause the same symptoms. Often, because vitamin E and selenium are interrelated in body functions, your goat may be deficient in both at the same time.
Know Your Soil
Many parts of the United States have a deficiency of selenium in the soil. If the region has less than half a milligram of selenium per kilogram of soil, then it is considered deficient. These regions include the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Great Lakes area reaching into New England, and down the southern East Coast. However, there are also regions with high amounts of selenium in the soil, even high enough to cause selenium toxicity if you are not careful with your herd. These areas include parts of the Dakotas, Idaho, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and into the neighboring states. While you can find maps that show the general selenium concentration for your county, I highly suggest contacting your local extension office to receive a definite number. Even within an area, selenium levels can vary broadly. You can even send a soil sample for testing to determine exactly what the selenium levels are on your property.
Forage is best, while alfalfa hays are usually also good sources of selenium for goats. Yet, even in plants that would normally have good amounts, low soil selenium means low plant selenium. Vitamin E also quickly diminishes in a feed as it is stored, as much as by 50% in the first month of storage after feed is harvested. Some minerals, such as sulfur, can actually inhibit your goat’s absorption of selenium even if it is in good concentrations in their diet.
Symptoms of White Muscle Disease in Goats
I’m sure you are asking why selenium deficiency is under the category of “legs.” Well, the legs are what will clue you in that a goat is deficient in either selenium or vitamin E. A goat suffering from white muscle disease will often stand with very stiff legs, sometimes hunched over. They will experience muscle weakness which is most pronounced in the legs, usually affecting the back legs first. If you feel the muscles, they will feel hard and tight and be tender to the touch. Newborn goats with white muscle disease may be completely unable to stand, and their hind feet may even bend backward at the ankle. Selenium deficiency can affect your entire herd, but newborns and young kids are the most vulnerable, especially when their mother became deficient while they were still in the womb.
How can we combat possible selenium and/or vitamin E deficiency, and white muscle disease, in goats? First, you must know the amount of selenium in your soil. That will determine your mineral management practices. If your soil is only a little deficient, then your goats only need a little supplementation, perhaps a subcutaneous injection of Bo-Se (a selenium and vitamin E supplement given to sheep, so it would be off-label for goats but still effective) once or twice a year, usually around breeding time or four to six weeks before kidding season. If your area is extremely deficient, you may need a goat mineral that has been formulated for your region, or possibly selenium gel given occasionally. There are other feed and mineral supplements that can help when given regularly. However, the federal government regulates how much selenium can be in these feeds in order to prevent toxicity in the regions where selenium is not deficient. While giving feed that contains added selenium for goats is good practice if you are in an area with less selenium, but it may not be enough if your area is very low in selenium.
There is a very fine line between too little and too much selenium. In the areas that have a very high concentration of selenium, toxicity can even occur from goats eating the wrong types of forage with no supplementation at all. If you are in a place with high amounts of selenium, look out for Astragalus (locoweed) which can indicate high selenium as well as absorb high amounts. Do not allow your goats to eat this plant.
Because giving the correct amount of selenium to your goats is such a delicate balance, please speak to your local veterinarian about soil conditions, how you manage your herd (pasture vs. pen), what you feed, and how you want to combat the possibility of white muscle disease in goats. Many goat owners keep BoSE on hand in case of an emergency need for selenium, especially in newborn kids. This must be obtained by prescription through your vet. You can also do blood tests on your goats to see if they are getting enough selenium in their current diet and adjust accordingly.
Selenium toxicity can have symptoms very similar to those of deficiency. However, it can be difficult to save a goat experiencing toxicity, especially if you first think it to be the opposite problem. It is best to err on the side of caution on your selenium supplementation, keeping injectable selenium on hand for emergencies rather than simply feeding selenium gel indiscriminately. Once again, please coordinate with your veterinarian about the selenium levels in your area and the best way to adjust your own herd management to care for your goats.
Have you dealt with selenium deficiency and white muscle disease in goats? We would love to hear your stories.
Originally published in the Goat Journal 2020 special subscriber issue — Goat Health, From Head to Hoof — and regularly vetted for accuracy.