What is Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers ?
You might be surprised to learn that gastric stomach ulcers are more common in horses than you may have previously known. In fact, it is estimated that approximately 50 percent to 90 percent of horses are afflicted with gastric stomach ulcers. This is especially true if your horse is involved in performance activities, like racing, jumping and other types of competitive exercises. And, you might also be surprised to learn that your horse may be suffering from gastric stomach ulcers right now and you won’t necessarily even know it.
Stomach ulcers, a stage of gastritis, are ulcerations in the lining of the stomach which are the result of increased gastric acid eating away at the lining of various parts of the stomach.
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Symptoms of Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers in Horses
The only certain way to know if your horse has gastric ulcers is by diagnostic imaging, but here are a few things you might notice in your horse:
- Loss of appetite
- Struggling to maintain weight or experiencing weight loss
- Changes in the normal feel and appearance of the hair coat
- Decreased performance (may be slight decrease and may even display an unwillingness to train)
- Poor behavior or changes in customary behaviors
- Chewing of wood
In foals, you will note some or all of these symptoms:
- Poor nursing
- Ptyalism - excessive salivation
- Bruxism - grinding of teeth
- Dorsal recumbency - lying down on back
If any of these symptoms are present, it would be in your best interest, and in the best interest of your horse, to get him evaluated by your veterinary professional. Gastric ulcers in foals usually do not present with specific symptoms unless they are advanced or severe in nature so pay close attention to milder exhibitions of these symptoms.
There are two types of gastric stomach ulcers. These types are based upon the portion of the stomach in which they are located:
- Upper squamous region - Equine Squamous Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (ESGUS)
- Lower glandular region - Equine Glandular Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGGUS)
Gastric ulcers are a stage of gastritis, which is simply defined as inflammation of the gastric system of your horse. They are not the cause of the gastric inflammation but rather are the result of increased gastric acid activity in one or both of the parts of the stomach. It is important to ascertain the type and location of the ulcerative lesions as the treatments differ though the signs and symptoms may be quite similar.
Causes of Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers in Horses
The causes of gastric stomach ulcers in horses are basically stress-related, just as these conditions are in their human counterparts. Here are some of the stressors which could be assisting in the development of stomach ulcers in your equine:
- Exercise causes acid from the lower glandular portion of the stomach to get splashed around and it splashes upward into the non glandular upper squamous portion where there is less protection for the lining of the stomach
- Feeding schedules which differ from the all day long grazing for which the equine stomach and digestive system was designed
- Transport stress, racing and other high-performance stressors
- Periods of confinement to stalls - this incorporates intermittent feeding schedule and a lack of interaction with other horses to produce its own kind of stress
- Bute (phenylbutazone), flunixin meglumine, ketoprofen - non steroidal anti inflammatory medications that are known to decrease the production of the mucous layer in the stomach which provides protection for the lining of the stomach (not confirmed as a consistent contributor to gastric stomach ulcers)
Stressors basically interrupt the natural production of mucus and acid in the stomach which were originally designed to be maintained in a certain balance for good digestive health in your horse. When this balance is off kilter, conditions are created that allow the eroding of the lining of the stomach, resulting in the lesion we call an ulcer.
Diagnosis of Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers in Horses
Since the two types of gastric ulcers develop in different parts of the stomach and are not necessarily treated the same way, it is vital to know the type and location of the ulceration for appropriate treatment. And it is important to note that gastric ulcers can be present in both foals and mature horses, the symptoms of which are noted above. There are no real blood tests which will definitively support the presence of gastric ulcers nor does any departure from the norm in lab testing prevent the possibility of other systemic causes for the symptoms.
The most effective and reliable method of determining the presence of a gastric ulcer, its severity, and its location is through endoscopy and direct observation of the lesion. Endoscopy can utilize differing wavelengths of light to look at the mucosal lining of the stomach to see potential ulcers or problem areas before they actually develop into the ulcerative lesion itself. This will allow treatment options to be developed that could retard the development of the ulcer and prevent the behavior and performance issues that ensue when your equine is suffering from the discomfort associated with gastric ulcers.
Treatment of Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers in Horses
When it comes to the treatment of gastric stomach ulcers, your veterinary professional will be interested in achieving the goal of a pH level between 4 and 5 as well as the reduction of acid production. Studies have been done on the use of cimetidine to assuage this acid production and it has not been proven as an effective means to the desired end. Ranitidine 6.6 mg/kg by mouth three times a day has been shown as effective in healing these ulcers when the horse is removed from training.
Omeprazole is, at this time, the only medication that has been approved by the FDA in the treatment of and for the prevention of gastric stomach ulcers in horses and the horse doesn’t need to be removed from training for this option The dosages recommended for treatment and healing are 4 mg/kg per day orally and for prevention of future ulcers the recommended dosage is 1 mg/kg per day orally.
Recovery of Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers in Horses
Avoiding gastric stomach ulcers in your horse may not be totally possible depending on the activities in which your horse is involved. But, getting creative and reducing the stressors in the daily life of your equine, would go a long way to achieving that goal. The less stress for your horse, the less opportunity for the stomach acid to interfere with work and performance plans for both you and your horse.
Attending to gastric stomach ulcers as early as possible in their development will help to maintain better digestive health for your horse. This condition, like those in the humanoid species and like many others in the equine species, can become quite serious and potentially deadly if left untreated and allowed to progress in an uncontrolled manner. Keep close tabs on your horse and note the symptoms listed above (though most are quite ambiguous) and get medical advice sooner rather than later to avoid long-term problems.
Stomach (Gastric) Ulcers Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
I have a 35 year old mustang who had never even seen a vet except for his yearly exams and vaccinations. Last Saturday, he developed severe colic. I treated him with Banamine and Bute, but he still was having symptoms. He was salivating and had yellow fluid coming out of his nose. The vet tubed him with mineral oil, and a large amount of yellow liquid was dispelled from his mouth and nose. He said that he reached a point where the tube would not advance. I thought he told me that he had a gastric impaction, but later he said I misunderstood and that he has gastritis. He kept him for a few days and observed him. We brought him home and kept him in the corral. The vet suggested that we change his feed from Safe Choice Senior to Purina Equine Senior, which we did. He will eat about 3 lbs and then start to salivate again and not want to eat. Blood work showed high CK, BUN, AST, TBIL, and GGT, although he reran the blood work last night and it was better. The vet believes that he may have some kind of cancer and dementia. He wants us to feed him 5-6 lbs of feed with 1/2 cup aloe vera juice twice a day and turn him out to see how he does. I mentioned putting him on some kind of dietary supplement to coat his stomach, but he does not want to do that right now. I was thinking of U-Gard. We have 150 acres for him to graze on, and he is doing that, but he has very few teeth and can't chew it properly. We had been giving him Chaffhaye along with his feed, but he will not even touch that now. He had been losing weight and over the last 3-4 weeks, we had increased his feed from about 6 lbs to lbs. He is losing weight now. Do you have any suggestions? Our vet is great and we have used him for 21 years, but I think he thinks our horse's time is up. He knows that my most important consideration is that I don't want him to suffer. That is why I thought about trying U-Gard. He is having very few bowel movements, but he does have gut sounds. Thank you.
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