Copper deficiency causes more salient pathologic changes in the heart than in the liver of rats. Although oxidative stress has been implicated in copper deficiency-induced pathogenesis, little is known about the selective toxicity to the heart. Therefore, we examined the relationship between the severity of copper deficiency-induced oxidative damage and the capacity of antioxidant defense in heart and liver to investigate a possible mechanism for the selective cardiotoxicity. Weanling rats were fed a purified diet deficient in copper (0.4 microgram/g diet) or one containing adequate copper (6.0 microgram/g diet) for 4 weeks. Copper deficiency induced a 2-fold increase in lipid peroxidation in the heart (thiobarbituric assay) but did not alter peroxidation in the liver. The antioxidant enzymatic activities of superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase were, respectively, 3-, 50- and 1.5-fold lower in the heart than in the liver, although these enzymatic activities were depressed in both organs by copper deficiency. In addition, the activity of glutathione reductase was 4 times lower in the heart than in the liver. The data suggest that a weak antioxidant defense system in the heart is responsible for the relatively high degree of oxidative damage in copper-deficient hearts.