Does your horse have ulcers?
April 22, 2013
You have just returned home from a large horse show, rodeo or branding and your horse didn't perform well. You notice that he continues to look at his sides and he doesn't finish his daily grain. You or someone else may have noticed how dull your horse's hair coat appears and that he seems depressed. After doing some research and speaking with a few equine professionals you are likely to learn that your horse may have gastric ulcers.
There are several signs that a horse may have ulcers including but not limited to the following: a change in attitude, a change in performance, a decrease in appetite, increased signs or incidence of colic, a decrease in body condition score/weight and a dull hair coat.
The only way to truly diagnose gastric ulcers, commonly called "equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS)" is with a scope of the stomach area, performed with an endoscope by a veterinarian. Traditionally, the stomach must be empty and the practitioner will look for signs of inflammation and or erosion of the stomach and duodenum (the beginning of the small intestine) wall. In order for the horse's stomach to be empty, feed and water should be withheld for approximately 12 hours. Also, consult with a veterinarian prior to pulling a horse off feed and water for exact directions on how to empty the horse's stomach prior to diagnostics. When scoping the horse's stomach the veterinarian will be able to document the number of ulcers, location and size. According to Oke and Andrews Gastric Ulcers: Fact Sheet, ulcers are believed to be caused by acidic acid known as hydrochloric acid.
Horses are designed to be continuous grazers. In a pasture setting, a horse may easily graze 16 or 17 hours per day. The stomach of the horse is designed to continually account for this behavior and in the lower half of the stomach hydrochloric acid is produced constantly. However, today many horses are not able to graze for long periods of time due more intense management for performance or other uses. Often times when a horse is exercising or even missing a meal the hydrochloric acid can easily splash or enter the upper half of the horse's stomach. The upper half of the horse's stomach is considered to be more sensitive to hydrochloric acid and is more skin like versus glandular. Continuous exercise such as trotting or galloping for an extended period of time, diets high in starch and carbohydrates, increased stall or corral time, continual use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID's) and overall stressful daily life can contribute to ulcer development. In fact, they are quite frequently found in performance horses who exist under in these situations. However, horse owners should be aware that a horse living on a pasture or young foal could also be susceptible to EGUS, according to the Fact Sheet.
Tamzali et al. 2011 reports that a variety of horses may be susceptible to EGUS. The various estimates have been suggested by Tamzali (et al., 2011) EGUS are found 90 percent of the time in race horses, anywhere from 37-66 percent of the time in sport or leisure horses, 70.9 percent of the time in pastured broodmares and 50 percent of the time in foals. The numbers suggest that any horse could be susceptible to ulcers, so how can an owner protect their horse? Ideally, if an owner must treat a horse for EGUS then one of the most important goals will be maintaining the pH level. Some owners have successfully maintained a more neutral or balanced pH by offering over the counter antacids (such as Maalox). Ideally, the owner wants to increase the pH to over 4 and coat the ulcer with something like an antacid so the horse will continue to eat or perform while not in pain. Another idea shared in the Fact Sheet is to attempt to decrease acid production with prescribed medication (ranitidine and cimetidien) or stop secretion of hydrochloric acid with omeprazole paste.
An owner may help prevent ulcers by making a change in the horse's diet. Ideally the horse's diet should be composed of 75 percent roughage and divided into several small meals (four to six) per day. According to a 2007 research paper from the Annual Convention of Equine Practitioners, forages that have shown to help decrease ulcers are forages that are high in calcium like Alfalfa. It's been suggested that a horse needing a high caloric intake be fed a diet high in fat versus carbohydrates. The higher water soluble fat diets such as rice bran oil may even help with supporting a healthy gut lining reports a 2005 American Journal of Veterinary Research article from 2005.
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Overall, to prevent ulcers it's best to maximize turn out, provide a diet high in forages and try to reduce stress. Keep in mind to that some horses may be predisposed to developing ulcers based on their breed or use and even though all the precautions are being taken the horse may still develop ulcers. If you have a horse that has changed his attitude, performance or shown signs of unthrifty appearance considering consulting with your veterinarian and consider changes in management to optimize his performance and health.