What are Gastric Ulcers?
Young horses and foals have a higher likelihood of developing gastric ulcers due to their tendency to feed infrequently and lay recumbent for long periods. Adult horses that engage in high intensity or athletic activities have a higher chance of developing gastric ulcers due to the increase of gastric acid production during exercise and decreased blood flow to the gastrointestinal tract.
If your horse is suffering from a gastric ulcer you may notice signs such as reduction of appetite, poor coat quality, or behavioral changes such as an increase in fear responses or quietness.
As this condition can worsen overtime and may require diet and environmental management as well as medical treatment, it is essential you contact your veterinarian if you suspect your horse may be suffering from this condition.
Gastric ulcers are a common affliction in horses, estimated to be seen in 50% to 90% of the population. Although there are factors that may predispose horses to this condition, such as poor diet or excessive exercise, this condition can affect all horses at any age.
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Symptoms of Gastric Ulcers in Horses
If your horse is suffering from a gastric ulcer they may show the following symptoms:
- Reduced appetite or complete anorexia
- Loss of condition & weight loss
- Rough or poor coat quality
- Reduced stamina performance
- Increase in fear responses
- Abdominal discomfort
- Increased urination
Ulcers are split into categories determining the severity of the disease. These are:
- Grade 1 which may involve 1-2 superficial lesions
- Grade 2 which may involve 3-5 deeper lesions that may involve the mucosal tissue
- Grade 3 which may involve 6-10 lesions that vary in severity
- Grade 4 which may involve over 10 lesions with deep mucosal involvement
- Grade 5 which may involve over 10 lesions with active hemorrhage
Causes of Gastric Ulcers in Horses
From a biological perspective horses are designed to graze throughout the day, therefore, they would require a steady flow of gastric acid to aid digestion. In a natural environment where the horse is grazing throughout the day this acid is buffered by the food ingested as well as the saliva produced through chewing. In environments where the horse is unable to graze, due to lack of pasture, and is provided with 2 large meals daily the acid is unable to be neutralized. This leads to the breakdown of the lining of the esophagus, the stomach and the duodenum.
Other factors that may be detrimental to the acid regulation in the stomach are non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, poor diet, stress due to lack of contact with other horses, or transport. Due to their higher tendency for athletic activities, thoroughbreds are common sufferers from this disease. Although this condition can affect horses of all ages, foals are more likely to suffer from gastric ulcers.
Diagnosis of Gastric Ulcers in Horses
In order to definitively diagnose a stomach ulcer your veterinarian will need to perform a gastric endoscopy. To perform this, your horse will require fasting for 12 hours and have water withheld for 4 hours prior to the procedure. Your horse will then be sedated to reduce stress. Your vet will then enter a small camera through your horse’s nostril down to the stomach. This camera will allow your veterinarian to observe the esophagus and stomach lining. This will show them damage or ulcerations and enable them to make a diagnosis and determine the severity of disease.
Treatment of Gastric Ulcers in Horses
For the best treatment you should provide medical treatment as well as address the factors that may be causing the ulcers to develop. Omeprazole is considered an effective product for preventing and treating gastric ulcers in horses. Your horse may require this treatment for one month, upon completion of the course a repeat endoscopy may be required to confirm resolution.
Recovery of Gastric Ulcers in Horses
There are a range of preventative measures that can be taken to support your horse’s gastrointestinal system, reduce the risk of reoccurrence of gastric ulcers, and support healing.
- Feeding your horse 3-4 meals per day if free grazing is not possible
- Provide good quality ad lib hay; as straw provides low calcium and protein, this should be avoided and instead feed high calcium and high protein hay such as Lucerne hay
- Protect the stomach prior to exercise by feeding a small meal of Lucerne and hard feed
- Discuss the benefits of protectants in the daily diet with your veterinarian.
- If possible, allow free access to grazing for constant intake to reduce gastric acid levels.
- Allow your horse to interact with other horses to prevent stress from isolation
- Continue omeprazole as recommended by your veterinarian
- If situations that may cause stress are premeditated, such as transport, discuss using omeprazole as a preventative with your veterinarian