Hair testing

is considered by many nutritionists/scientists/vets to be very limited for overall nutrient balance. Nutritionists can’t use results for balancing a horse’s intake or consider hair testing credible in the face of such significant research.

Hair can be analysed for a variety of substances, including drugs, but in nutritional terms hair analysis refers to hair mineral levels. Minerals reach hair via the blood so it’s going have similar limitations as blood testing since hormones control the levels of many of the minerals giving little indication of the status for the rest of the body. Dr Kellon VMD “Hair mineral is not an accurate way to determine mineral status and is worthless for formulating the diet and supplements.” NRCPlus

The kidneys will rapidly excrete minerals when they are higher than a tight range, electrolytes like potassium are a good example. The liver can remove minerals before they reach hair. Hair testing can’t tell mineral balance even if the totals were credible as it doesn’t indicate whether it’s due to a deficiency in the first place or competition with another mineral or the body had a high need at that time. Hair can be useful for some heavy metals and selenium but from a nutrition point of view hair testing is not considered overall to be reliable.

Even with selenium, though hair testing is considered accurate by some, the result can’t tell us:
– if the level will reflect an average of intakes over several months – not how the horse is now
– how low (or how high) the dietary levels are.

Even selenium results via hair testing is debatable. Veterinarian and nutritionist Sarah Ralston has concerns. Ralston, a faculty member at Rutgers University, agrees that hair analysis may be “vaguely useful” for selenium status, but believes values from blood samples are more representative of true levels. Dr Eleanor Kellon VMD recommends a whole blood sample.
Equine Hair Analysis

There’s been many studies which have demonstrated that many factors other than diet affect the mineral concentrations in hair. Things that affect the mineral levels in hair testing include the time of year, location on the body (different parts of the body test differently, even if they are the same hair colour), breed, age, hair colour, shampoo residues, airborne contamination, sweat, dust on the horse, soil on the horse (even if the horse looks clean), all make a difference. It’s not uncommon for hair mineral analyses can’t tell the difference between minerals that are on the surface of the hair and those that are actually inside the hair.

Hair testingOne study found higher concentrations of zinc in different colours of hair on the same animal. The same colour hair on different breeds of cattle eating the same food and in the same paddocks produced different mineral levels. Researchers found the age of calves/cows in the same paddock eating the same feed tested for different levels of minerals. Researchers found differences in mineral content of calf hair in calves by different sires – calves were all together and being fed same food. Animals tested all year round showed different mineral level at different times of year, even though they were eating the same thing. There has been more success with hair testing for arsenic and cadmium, but even such things as age, sex, and length of hair, have been demonstrated to affect the testing for arsenic.

One vet researcher sent hair from one horse as separate samples and got very different results.  Dr Eleanor Kellon discusses the limitations of hair testing in NRCPlus and Dr Ann Nyland researched this in great detail in her book ‘Natural Horse Care The Right Way’.

There is a huge body of research on hair analysis, and not one scientific paper has found any evidence that it is in any way effective for balancing the intake (that I know of).

A 2015 study by A Ghorbani et al compared blood testing vs hair testing which found (not surprisingly) that hair testing was superior to blood testing. Since we know that blood testing is extremely limited it’s not saying much about the validity of hair testing.

When published it did cause a stir stating “Hair mineral analysis is a suitable tool for evaluating mineral status in horse.” Unfortunately the study design didn’t compare with liver nutrient status so wasn’t able to verify hair levels with body levels of nutrients. The statement that hair testing is a suitable tool is a stretch.

The best and most accurate approach is to have the intake tested (pasture/hay and so forth) and the diet balanced. It’s not an exact science but the best we have other than a liver biopsy! Soil testing is valuable for long term soil treatment and improving pastures but not useful for determining what is in your horse’s intake. Read more about soil testing and pasture or hay testing.

Further reading:

Links may change over time. If a link doesn’t work, search the title in your search engine.

Anke M (1965) Major and trace elements in cattle hair as an indicator of Ca, Mg, P, K, Na, Fe, Zn, Mn, Cu, Mo and Co. 2. Relationship to cutting depth, hair type, hair color, hair age, animal age, lactation state and pregnancy Arch. Tierzucht. 15: 469

Anke, M (1966) Major and trace elements in cattle hair as an indicator of Ca, Mg, P, K, Na, Fe, Zn, Mn, Cu, Mo and Co. 3. Effect of additional supplements on mineral composition of cattle hair  Arch. Tierzucht. 16: 57

Barrett S (1985) Commercial hair analysis. Science or scam? JAMA. Aug 23-30;254(8):1041-5

Barrett S (2018) Commercial hair analysis: A Cardinal Sign of Quackery

Combs DK, Goodrich RD, Kahion TS and Meiske JC (1979) Effects of nonnutritional sources of variation on concentrations of various minerals in cattle hair Minnesota Cattle Feeders Rep. 54

Combs DK, Goodrich RD and Meiske JC (1982) Mineral Concentrations in hair as indicators of mineral status: a review J.Anim. Sci. 54(2):391-398

Combs DK (1987) Hair analysis as an indicator of mineral status of livestock J Anim Sci. 1987 Dec;65(6):1753-1758.

Fisher DD, Wilson LL, Leach RM and Scholz RW (1985) Switch hair as an indicator of magnesium and copper status of beef cows Am. J. Vet. Res. 46(11):2235-2240

Ghorbani A, Mohit A and Kuhi HD (2015) Effects of dietary mineral intake on hair and serum mineral contents of horses J. Equine Vet. Sci. 35(4):295-300

Hambidge KM, Franklin ML and Jacobs MA (1972) Hair chromium concentration: effects of sampling, washing and external environment Amer. J. Clin. Nutr. 25(4):384-389

Hambidge KM (1982) Hair analyses: worthless for vitamins, limited for minerals. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. Nov;36(5):943-949

Hammer DI, J. Finklea JF, Hendricks RH, Hinners TA, Riggan WR and Shy CM (1972) Trace metals in human hair as a simple epidemiologic monitor of environmental exposure  In: D. 0. Hemphill (Ed.) Trace Substances in Environmental Health, V.A. Symposium, Univ. of Missouri, Columbia, 25

Kellon E NRCPlus, Chapter 2 Tools

Kempson IM and Skinner WM (2012) A comparison of washing methods for hair mineral analysis: internal versus external effects Biol. Trace Elem. Res. Dec;150(1-3):10-14

Miller WJ, Powell GW and Pitts WJ (1965) Factors affecting zinc content of bovine hair J.Dairy Sci. 48(8):1091-1095

Niculescu T, Dumitru R, Botha V, Alexandrescu R and Manolescu N (1983) Relationship between the lead concentration in hair and occupational exposure Br. J. Ind. Med. Feb 40(1):67-70

O’Mary CC, Butts WT Jr., Reynolds RA and Bell MC (1969) Effects of irradiation, age, season and color on mineral composition of Hereford cattle hair J. Anim. Sci. 28(2):268-271

O’Mary CC, Bell MC, Snead NN and Butts WT, Jr (1970) Influence of ration copper on minerals in the hair of Hereford and Holstein calves J. Anim. Sci. 31(3):626-630

Petering HG, Yeager DW and Witherup SO (1973) Trace metal content of hair Arch  Environ. Health 27(5):327-330

Powell GW, Miller WJ, Morton JD and Cliffion CM (1964) Influence of dietary cadmium level and supplemental zinc on cadmium toxicity in the bovine I. Nutr. 84(3):205-214

Ralston SL (2015) The Proof Behind Horse Hair Analysis
Can hair analysis determine what supplements a horse needs?

Reinhold JG, Kfoury GA and Arslanian M (1968) Relation of zinc and calcium concentrations in hair to zinc nutrition in rats Nutr. 96(4):519-524

Roug A, Swift PK, Gerstenberg G, Woods LW, Kreuder-Johnson C, Torres SG and Puschner B (2015) Comparison of trace mineral concentrations in tail hair, body hair, blood, and liver of mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in California J. Vet. Diagn Invest. May;27(3):295-305

Seidel S, PhD; Kreutzer R, MD; Smith D, DrPH; McNeel S, DVM and Gilliss D, MD (2001) Assessment of commercial laboratories performing hair mineral analysis JAMA. 285(1):67-72

Underwood EJ (1977) Trace Elements in Human and Animal Nutrition (4th Ed.) New York.

Van Koetsveld EE (1958) The manganese and copper contents of hair as an indication of the feeding condition of cattle regarding manganese and copper T/dsehr. Diergeneesk 83:229

Wells LA, LeRoy R, Ralston SL (1990) Mineral intake and hair analysis of horses in Arizona

Wysocki AA and Klett RH (1971) Hair as an indicator of the calcium and phosphorus status of ponies J. Anim. Sci. 32(1):74-78