Polioencephalomacia (polio) is a disease that can become a problem in some sheep flocks, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension Service sheep specialist, Reid Redden, warns.
It is characterized by the death of brain cells and is different from human polio, according to Neil Dyer, director of NDSU's Veterinary Diagnostic Lab.
Rising feed costs have many livestock producers, including shepherds, looking for less-expensive alternatives to traditional feedstuffs. However, some of these changes may result in animal health problems such as polio if diets are not balanced adequately for vitamins and minerals.
The primary cause of polio in sheep is thiamine deficiency, or a disturbance in how the body uses thiamine. Thiamine (vitamin B1) is produced naturally in the rumen of sheep on a normal diet.
Feeding high-grain diets to ruminants can predispose them to polio because it slows thiamine production in the rumen and increases mechanisms that degrade thiamine produced in the rumen. Therefore, supplemental thiamine should be added to all high-grain sheep diets to prevent polio, Redden says.
Sheep suspected of having polio from a thiamine deficiency recover quickly after a few treatments with vitamin B-complex.
Other causes of polio in sheep include elevated levels of sulfur in the diet or sulfates in the drinking water and eating plants such as bracken fern and horse tail that contain enzymes that can cause polio.
Polio is most often seen in lambs from a few weeks to 6 months old; however, it can affect sheep of any age. Sheep producers who suspect polio in their flock should contact their attending veterinarian for treatment and prevention advice.
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Reprinted in part from Northern Ag Network