Investigating the pathogenesis of high-serum gamma-glutamyl transferase activity in Thoroughbred racehorses: A series of case-control studies

Equine Vet J. 2022 Jan;54(1):39-51. doi: 10.1111/evj.13435. Epub 2021 Mar 8.


Background: High-serum γ-Glutamyl Transferase (GGT) activity has been associated with and thought to be a marker of maladaptation to training and possibly poor performance in racehorses, but the cause is unknown.

Objectives: To investigate possible metabolic and infectious causes for the high GGT syndrome.

Study design: Pilot case-control study and nested case-control study.

Methods: The case-control study in 2017 included 16 horses (8 cases and 8 controls with median [range] serum GGT 82 [74-148] and 22 [19-28] IU/L, respectively) from the same stable. In 2018, similar testing was performed in a nested case-control study that identified 27 case (serum GGT 50 ≥ IU/L)-control pairs from three stables for further testing. Serum liver chemistries, selenium measurements, viral PCR and metabolomics were performed.

Results: No differences were found in frequency of detection of viral RNA/DNA or copy numbers for equine hepacivirus (EqHV) and parvovirus-hepatitis (EqPV-H) between cases and controls. Mild increases in hepatocellular injury and cholestatic markers in case vs control horses suggested a degree of liver disease in a subset of cases. Metabolomic and individual bile acid testing showed differences in cases compared with controls, including increased abundance of pyroglutamic acid and taurine-conjugated bile acids, and reduced abundance of Vitamin B6. Selenium concentrations, although within or above the reference intervals, were also lower in case horses in both studies.

Main limitations: Observational study design did not allow us to make causal inferences.

Conclusions: We conclude that high GGT syndrome is likely a complex metabolic disorder and that viral hepatitis was not identified as a cause for this syndrome in this cohort of racehorses. Our results support a contribution of oxidative stress and cholestasis in its pathophysiology.

Keywords: Thoroughbred; high GGT syndrome; horse; metabolomics; racehorse; virus hepatitis.

Publication types

  • Observational Study, Veterinary

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Horse Diseases* / blood
  • Horse Diseases* / virology
  • Horses
  • Parvoviridae Infections* / veterinary
  • Parvovirus
  • gamma-Glutamyltransferase / blood*


  • gamma-Glutamyltransferase