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What is copper?
When we think of copper we often think of industrial things like wires and pipes; we don’t really think about our horse’s diet. It was in the late 1920’s when scientist’s first discovered the importance of copper; after initially assuming it was present in the body due to contamination.
The truth is copper is a trace element, meaning it is needed in small quantities by the body. Despite its trace element status, the importance of copper for horses should never be underestimated!
Why do horses need copper?
Copper is involved in energy production, iron metabolism, connective tissue formation, melanin (pigment) formation and the immune system. There is a common thread to how copper is utilised in the body and that is enzymes! Enzymes are substances that help to facilitate and usually speed up reactions or processes within the body. Many enzymes are reliant upon copper to function and copper also acts as an antioxidant; protecting cells and tissues within the body from harmful reactive oxygen species.
An enzyme called cytochrome c oxidase is reliant upon copper and is crucial to the process that produces adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in the cells mitochondria. ATP is the unit of energy that powers everything in the body. A copper deficiency could impact energy production and therefore athletic performance, especially when combined with issues in iron metabolism.
Red blood cell health and iron metabolism
We regularly receive questions about anaemia in the horse, and whether a lack of iron is the cause. Anaemia is often thought of as an iron deficiency, it is actually a deficiency in the number and quality of red blood cells in the body. In most situations iron is abundantly available to horses, even those on a forage only diet, and deficiency is highly unlikely. A copper deficiency is far more likely to impact red blood cell health, as four copper dependent enzymes known as “ferroxidases” are responsible for mobilising stores from the liver, bone marrow, and spleen. If a copper deficiency exists then it is likely that iron mobilisation will suffer and red blood cell function will be impaired having significant consequences on general health and performance.
Connective tissue formation
Lysyl-oxidase is another copper dependent enzyme responsible for cross linking of collagen and elastin in connective tissues, these cross-links give these tissues their strength and elasticity/flexibility. Copper is also responsible for the elasticity of major blood vessels and a copper deficiency has been associated with rupture of some vessels, such as post-parturition uterine artery rupture.
A collagen matrix is needed for new bone to build itself upon and therefore lysyl-oxidase is critical to skeletal formation. Copper deficiency has been associated with developmental orthopaedic diseases in foals and yearlings for this reason. The liver is a great storage organ for copper and is particularly important in the foal, as the foetus will store copper up to be utilised once the foal arrives; using a mare copper supplement during the final trimester can help to avoid deficiencies in foals.
Coat health and colour
Copper is also involved in the production of keratin which has a significant impact on coat and hoof quality. When a copper deficiency exists you may find your horse has a brittle mane and tail, possibly coupled with chronic hoof issues such as; poor horn growth and cracks.
Another copper dependent enzyme is polyphenol oxidase, this one facilitates the conversion of tyrosine to melanin, which is the pigment that gives colour to skin and coat. Copper deficiency can lead to a bleached appearance to your horse’s coat colour.
Copper is important to fertility and a deficiency has been associated with foetal death and resorption and also delayed oestrus and abortion, presently most of these studies have been associated with other species, such as sheep and cattle.
How does a copper deficiency occur?
Two main things will determine the likelihood of a copper deficiency in your horse:
How to recognise a copper deficiency in horses?
The easiest way to know if your horse has a copper deficiency is to look out for the common signs; we have already discussed these but to summarise you would notice:
To actually diagnose a deficiency your vet would take a blood, hair sample or a liver biopsy. However, results from blood and hair analysis can be unreliable and misinterpreted. A liver biopsy would provide a more accurate reflection of copper status, but would usually only be taken in extreme cases, usually involving liver disease.
How to correct a copper deficiency?
Luckily a simple copper deficiency is relatively easy to correct. But how do we know which is the best copper supplement for horses?
Copper supplements are widely available but vary in quality and type. They can be liquids, pastes or powders and may be given daily or as needed. They may be in the form of copper sulphate or copper chelate; meaning the copper is attached usually to an amino acid or glucose molecule to increase bioavailability, making these the best copper supplement for horses when managing mineral imbalances; where iron or other minerals are inhibiting absorption.
Foran Equine CopperVit is a daily chelated copper supplement for horses, that has the added bonus of manganese, vitamin E, and vitamin B12. It is ideal for horses that are being fed daily and require additional copper intake. For example, mares during gestation, growing youngstock; particularly foals and yearlings being prepped for sale.
Foran Equine Copper-Max contains chelated copper and a well-balanced level of zinc, which is an advantage if a zinc deficiency is also occurring. Copper-Max comes as a paste, in a single use syringe and is designed to support all horses requiring additional copper especially those going into or in the middle of a strenuous training regime.
Horses at grass and not receiving any supplementary feed and those on a forage only diet, are likely to be deficient in copper, as well as other essential trace minerals. It is important that this is corrected by feeding a suitable hard feed or broad spectrum vitamin and mineral supplement. However, we also recommend using Copper Max; the extent of the horse’s copper deficiency will determine how often a Copper-Max is required. Two to three syringes given 10-14 days apart should be sufficient to manage a deficiency; with an ongoing review to assess when, if needed, to provide it again.