Zilpaterol is a β2-adrenergic agonist medication approved in certain countries as a cattle feed additive to improve carcass quality. Trace amounts of Zilpaterol can transfer to horse feed, yielding equine urinary “identifications” of Zilpaterol. These “identifications” occur because Zilpaterol is highly bioavailable in horses, resistant to biotransformation and excreted as unchanged Zilpaterol in urine, where it has a 5 day or so terminal half-life.

In horses, urinary steady-state concentrations are reached 25 days (5 half-lives) after exposure to contaminated feed. Zilpaterol readily presents in horse urine, yielding clusters of feed related Zilpaterol identifications in racehorses. The first cluster, April 2013, involved 48 racehorses in California; the second cluster, July 2013, involved 15 to 80 racehorses in Hong Kong. The third cluster, March 2019, involved 24 racehorses in Mauritius; this cluster traced to South African feedstuffs, triggering an alert concerning possible Zilpaterol feed contamination in South African racing. The fourth cluster, September/October 2020 involved 18 or so identifications in French racing, reported by the French Laboratories des Courses Hippiques, (LCH), and in July 2021, a fifth cluster of 10 Zilpaterol identifications in South Africa.

The regulatory approach to these identifications has been to alert horsemen and feed companies and penalties against horsemen are generally not implemented. Additionally, given their minimal exposure to Zilpaterol, there is little likelihood of Zilpaterol effects on racing performance or adverse health effects for exposed horses.

The driving factor in these events is that Zilpaterol is dissolved in molasses for incorporation into cattle feed. Inadvertent incorporation of Zilpaterol containing molasses into horse feed was the source of the California and Hong Kong Zilpaterol identifications. A second factor in the 2019 Mauritius and 2020 French identifications was the sensitivity of testing for Zilpaterol in Mauritius and France, with the French laboratory reportedly testing at a “more sensitive level for Zilpaterol”. As of January 1st, 2021, the new FEI Atypical Finding (ATF) policy specifies Zilpaterol as a substance to be treated as an Atypical Finding (ATF), allowing consideration of inadvertent feed contamination in the regulatory evaluation of Zilpaterol identifications.

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Published in Irish Veterinary Journal, v. 75, article 11.

© The Author(s) 2022

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This research was made possible by support from The Equine Health and Welfare Alliance, Inc, Versailles, Kentucky, and the United States Trotting Association, Columbus, OH. Long term support has come from The National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Ontario, Canada; Charles Town, WV; Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tampa Bay Downs, Florida, Texas, Washington State, and West Virginia Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Associations. Further research support has come from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hatch Program under project KY014051 Accession Number 1010609 and also by grants from the USDA Agriculture Research Service Specific Cooperative Agreement #58-6401-2-0025 for Forage-Animal Production Research, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association Foundation and by support for the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station as provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) and the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

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The datasets used and/or analyzed during the current study are available in the public domain as referenced in the manuscript or from the corresponding author on reasonable request.