Allopurinol is thought to protect hearts against damage due to hypoxia or ischemia by inhibiting xanthine oxidase and oxygen radical generation. We subjected isolated rabbit hearts, equilibrated by perfusion at 37 degrees C, to 1 h of global ischemia at 27 or 37 degrees C with or without brief pretreatment with 100 microM allopurinol. The total absence of xanthine or uric acid in the coronary effluent following ischemia, the presence of hypoxanthine (25 +/- 4 microM peak concentration), and the failure of allopurinol to alter purine washout profiles or postischemic cardiac function suggest that rabbit myocardium lacks xanthine oxidase or dehydrogenase. Data obtained with a similar rat heart preparation showed appreciable formation of xanthine (12 +/- 2 microM peak) and uric acid (10 +/- 3 microM). Allopurinol pretreatment inhibited xanthine and uric acid formation and significantly improved key indicators of postischemic left ventricular function. We conclude that there is species dependency in the myocardial activity of xanthine oxidase or dehydrogenase, that when present it can be inhibited by acute allopurinol pretreatment, and that xanthine oxidase activity and its ability to generate oxygen radicals are not universal contributors to cardiac ischemic damage.