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Corn toxicity in ruminants

Corn toxicity refers to two diseases, acidosis (grain overload) and enterotoxemia (overeating disease). Both diseases can cause death in any ruminant, including white-tailed deer and elk, even those in good body condition. While these diseases can occur at any time of the year they are usually seen in late winter and are often associated with where well-meaning people have put out corn or other artificial foods for deer. The rapid change from a natural diet of high-fiber woody browse to a low-fiber/high carbohydrate diet as is found in grain, such as corn, can lead to either disease.


In acidosis, the ingestion of large amounts of food high in carbohydrates like corn results in a change in the microflora (e.g. bacteria) within the rumen which leads to the production of large amounts of lactic acid. The lactic acid lowers the pH of the rumen which then further reduces the normal flora of the rumen leading to reduced rumen motility and interference with digestion.

In enterotoxemia, the ingestion of large amounts of food high in carbohydrates like corn results in an overgrowth of the bacteria Clostridium perfringens. This overgrowth leads to the production of lethal amounts of toxins that are absorbed into the animal's body.


Signs of deer or elk with either acidosis or enterotoxemia are similar and indistinguishable in the field. The signs can include dehydration, diarrhea, incoordination, convulsions and depression. Death may occur within 24-72 hours of excessive grain ingestion.


These diseases are primarily the result of artificial feeding. Preventing deer from gaining access to stores of grain or other high-carbohydrate foods is the best way to prevent these diseases.


While corn toxicity cannot affect people directly, venison from any sick deer should not be consumed.