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Disorders of Muscle in Animals


Stephen B. Adams

, DVM, DACVS, Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2020 | Modified Nov 2022
Topic Resources

The structural and functional unit of skeletal muscle is the motor unit. It consists of a ventral motor neuron with its cell body in the central horn of the spinal cord and its peripheral axon, the neuromuscular junction, and the muscle fibers innervated by the neuron. Each of these components must be functionally intact for the muscle to contract properly. The ventral motor neuron is the final common pathway conducting neural impulses from the CNS to the muscle.

The transmission of a nerve impulse at the neuromuscular junction involves massive release of acetylcholine from small synaptic vessels, where it is stored. The acetylcholine fills the synaptic cleft between the nerve terminal and the muscle fiber membrane, where most of it is destroyed by cholinesterase within a fraction of a second. This short period of activity is sufficient to excite the muscle fiber membrane, which results in a significant increase in membrane permeability to sodium ions and allows rapid influx of sodium into the muscle fiber. The sodium ion increases the endplate potential, which elicits electrical currents that spread to the interior of the fibers, where they cause a release of calcium ions from the sarcoplasmic reticulum. The calcium ions initiate, in turn, the chemical events of the contractile process. When this occurs in all the muscle fibers innervated by each motor neuron (possibly thousands), muscle contraction results.

Normal muscle, comprising many motor units, is dynamic, and its function and structure can be influenced by many diseases. Complete paralysis, paresis, or ataxia may be caused by primary muscular dysfunctions of infectious, toxic, or congenital origin. However, in most instances the primary disorder can be attributed to the nervous system (eg, tetanus Tetanus in Animals Tetanus is caused by the neurotoxin produced by Clostridium tetani , which is found in soil and intestinal tracts and usually introduced into tissues through deep puncture wounds. The... read more , rhinopneumonitis Equine Herpesvirus Infection Equine herpesviruses are ubiquitous worldwide, with EHV-1 and EHV-4 having the greatest clinical importance in causing respiratory disease in horses. Fever, nasal discharge, malaise, pharyngitis... read more Equine Herpesvirus Infection , canine distemper Canine Distemper Canine distemper is a highly infectious, systemic, viral disease of dogs that occurs worldwide. Dogs commonly exhibit systemic clinical signs (fever, lethargy, loss of appetite), respiratory... read more , protozoal myelitis), with the muscular system merely representing the effector organ. Disorders that affect the neuromuscular junction (eg, myasthenia gravis, hypocalcemia, hypermagnesemia Hypermagnesemia in Animals Hypermagnesemia (plasma magnesium [Mg] concentration >2 mg/dL [1.1 mmol/L]) is a rare condition reported only in monogastric animals. Horses show clinical signs of sweating and muscle weakness... read more ) can result in muscle fatigue, weakness, and paralysis. The neuromuscular junction can also be affected by muscle-relaxing drugs (eg, curare, succinylcholine, M99), certain antibiotics, and toxins (eg, botulism Botulism in Animals Botulism most commonly results from ingestion of toxin in food. The usual source of the toxin is decaying carcasses or vegetable material. Clinical signs are caused by flaccid muscle paralysis... read more , tetanus Tetanus in Animals Tetanus is caused by the neurotoxin produced by Clostridium tetani , which is found in soil and intestinal tracts and usually introduced into tissues through deep puncture wounds. The... read more , venoms).

Disorders primarily of the muscle membrane and, to some extent, of the actual muscle fibers are called myopathies. Muscle membrane disorders may be hereditary (eg, myotonia congenita in goats) or acquired (eg, vitamin E and selenium deficiencies, hypothyroidism Hypothyroidism in Animals Hypothyroidism is thyroid hormone deficiency. It is diagnosed by clinical features such as lethargy, weight gain, obesity, haircoat changes, and low serum thyroid hormone concentrations. Management... read more , and hypokalemia). Myopathies involving the actual muscle fiber components include muscular dystrophy, polymyositis, eosinophilic myositis, white muscle disease White Muscle Disease in Goats Also see Nutritional Myodegeneration . Most kids affected by white muscle disease have been in good condition and are 2–3 months old (range, 1 week to 4 months). Commonly, sudden death is associated... read more , and exertional rhabdomyolysis. Various laboratory tests, eg, histopathologic examination, determination of serum enzyme levels, electromyographic studies, thermography, and determinations of conduction velocity, are very useful in confirmation of a specific diagnosis.

Trauma to muscles is common in horses and also occurs in other species. The trauma can be from external injury or from intense athletic activity, during which muscle tears and ruptures may occur. Fibrotic myopathy Fibrotic Myopathy Fibrotic myopathy describes a classic gait abnormality that develops when horses injure their semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles at the point of a tendinous insertion during exercise... read more in the rearlimb of horses is a mechanical lameness caused by trauma and subsequent fibrosis or ossification of the muscle.

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