Trainers of horses in speed or endurance sports always want the best red-cell counts in their charges. More red cells mean more oxygen-carrying capacity and therefore more strength/stamina. But the trainers usually reach for an iron-containing supplement, not realizing that it’s unlikely the horse has a true iron deficiency.
In fact, iron doesn’t increase red-cell counts/hemoglobin. In fact, it can do more harm than good, even become toxic, since a potential cause of low red-cell counts is oxidative damage during heavy exercise.
When horses show higher red counts in response to a “blood-building” product, they’re most likely responding to the copper or B vitamins the product contains. Vitamin E, vitamin C, selenium and other trace minerals also are needed for optimal antioxidant control.
A horse may have adequate iron levels but be unable to use them properly due to a lack of adequate copper in the diet. If the horse is diagnosed with anemia and it’s related to copper deficiency, the serum iron level will be normal to high and total iron-binding capacity — a measure of how much more iron the blood can hold — will be low. Normal copper serum values are around 100 mcg/dl for an adult horse.
Cobalt is often noted in blood-building supplements. It’s an essential mineral for the synthesis of vitamin B12, and horses undoubtedly have minimum requirements for cobalt. Problem is, we don’t know what they are. “Best guess” estimates are in the neighborhood of 0.1 ppm, or about 1 to 3 mg/day. However, a cobalt deficiency state has never been recognized in horses. It is assumed their diets are adequate in cobalt, but we believe it wouldn’t hurt to supplement 1 to 2 mg/day as insurance.
Horses rarely are iron-deficient or anemic, as they store large amounts of iron in their body tissues. Hays and feeds also contain generous levels of iron compared to a horse’s needs. Following a large blood loss, which might result in temporary anemia, the vet may decide that iron supplementation for a few weeks may be in order. However, odds are that most horses have plenty of stored iron and would do fine without it.
Older horses can be diagnosed as anemic, but it’s really a result of multiple contributing factors. Older horses are usually considerably less active and fit, which decreases their need for oxygen. In fact, to the extent the lower counts are related to their lower activity levels, it isn’t truly an anemia. If the horse’s red-cell counts are only slightly low and parameters such as cell size and cellular hemoglobin concentrations are normal, with the horse in good health otherwise, there’s no need to panic.
Supplementation with antioxidants, B vitamins and trace minerals is wise in these horses. Older horses may be prone to borderline B-vitamin status, since their intestinal microflora may not be as robust as a younger horse’s. The older horse also may not absorb the vitamin B12 as well as younger horses.
When a horse is under stress because of a chronic disease, his body often lowers the level of circulating red blood cells. Part of this is caused by a decreased utilization of iron and part by a general slowdown in metabolism that occurs in an effort to help the body deal with the disease challenge. The anemia typically is mild and doesn’t respond to supplementation. It corrects itself spontaneously when the disease is adequately treated.
Any horse that suffers a large loss of blood may be anemic, although it takes a significant amount of blood loss. When a sudden, large blood loss occurs, the horse may need transfusion to avoid damage to critical organs. Otherwise, provision of a high-quality diet, with adequate protein and mineral levels as well as a period of supplementation with B vitamins is all the horse needs to recover.
Other treatable illness-related causes of anemia include:
• Severe respiratory infections
• Infections of the Babesia, Ehrlichia or Lyme organisms.
• Acute infections of any type, including any severe, systemic bacterial infection and Listeriosis.
• Developing antibodies against the body’s own red cells, which can be from drugs like penicillin, phenybutazone, flunixin (Banamine) and ketoprofen.
• Autoimmune reactions.
• Infections, abscesses containing anaerobic bacteria like Clostridia, or systemic Clostridia infections like colitis, and strangles.
You probably don’t want to risk supplementing iron, unless blood tests of the horse’s iron status prove that the horse needs it.
A number of the products in our chart are good choices for specific situations, such as Pow’red Performance from Cavalor. Our comments are specific for actual blood builders, not as general supplements.
If your horse is healthy and you’re looking for a supplement to cover all the bases in nutritional support — and therefore be a good “blood builder” — we suggest Vita-Key’s Antioxidant Concentrate or Peak Performance Nutrients’ Pro VM.
ProVM is the best if you also need a maintenance dose of glucosamine, plus higher lysine, methionine and biotin. However, since most horses only need their intakes boosted a bit, we like the levels in Farnam’s Go Max, our Best Buy.