Symptoms Of Gastric Ulcers In Horses And How To Diagnose & Treat
Gastric ulcers are becoming more prevalent in horses, in fact, they’re estimated to affect between 50 and 90% of horses. They can be hard to diagnose and horse owners can spend a long time trying to determine the best way to go about treating gastric ulcers in performance horses. Here we take a look at what ulcers are and the best ways that a horse owner can help to treat gastric ulcers.
What is Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome?
Gastric, or stomach, ulcers are sores that form on the stomach lining. They can affect any horse at any age but occur most frequently in performance horses with a focus on horses that are used for racing, endurance, and showing. Researchers have found that exercise increases gastric acid production and decreases blood flow to the GI tract. In addition, when horses exercise, the acidic fluid in the stomach splashes and exposes the upper, more vulnerable portion of the stomach to an acidic pH. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of information surrounding why some horses are prone to developing ulcers over others which does make it tricky to diagnose correctly and even harder to develop ways of preventing gastric ulcers in your horse.
Causes of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome
The stomach of the horse is relatively small in comparison to other species. As a result, horses cannot handle large amounts of food; they are built to graze and eat frequent, small portions of feed for extended periods. In a natural grazing situation, a steady flow of acid is required for digestion, so a horse’s stomach produces acid 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – up to 9 gallons of acidic fluid per day, even when not eating. In a natural, high-roughage diet, the acid is buffered by both feed and saliva.
When horses are stabled or yarded and only fed twice a day, the stomach is subjected to a prolonged period without feed to neutralize the acid. In addition, high-grain diets produce volatile fatty acids that can also contribute to the development of ulcers.
In addition, stress is a major risk factor for ulcers. Physical and environmental stressors such as intense exercise, stall confinement, and transport stress are common in performance horses and increase the risk of ulcers. Social stressors like changes in the herd group or changes to the environment and routine can also cause stress in the horse.
Lastly, chronic administration of some nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as Bute, can decrease the production of the protective mucus layer of the stomach, making it more susceptible to ulcers.
Horse stomach ulcers symptoms
There are a number of things to look out for if when trying to diagnose symptoms of gastric and colonic ulcers in horses. They may include:
- Poor Appetite which can in turn lead to weight loss and can also show as poor body condition
- Poor or Dull Coat
- Chronic Diarrhea
- Recurrent or Intermittent Colic
- Behavioral Changes
- Girth sensitivity
- Stretching as if to Urinate
- Cribbing or other Stereotypic Behaviors
- Teeth Grinding – particularly common in foals
- Increased Saliva Production shown by Excessive Salivation
- Laying down more than usual.
- Poor Performance
Diagnosis of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome
The only way to accurately diagnose equine ulcers is through a gastroscopy. This procedure allows your vet to locate and examine lesions in the lower esophagus, stomach, or upper section of the small intestine. A gastroscopy is also a useful tool for distinguishing between equine squamous gastric ulcers (ESGD) and equine glandular ulcers (EGGD) disease. This distinction is important as the treatment regimens for the two conditions vary, as does the emphasis on specific management changes to prevent recurrence.
Treating Gastric Ulcers in Horses
Once diagnosed you will work with your vet to determine the best treatment plan for your horse. Most vets will prescribe some combination of the following which may vary depending on the type of ulcers your horse is suffering from:
- Omeprazole to suppress the production of gastric acid and give the tissue time to heal and prompt the horse to eat (further suppressing the effect of excess stomach acid).
- Ranitidine or Cimetidine, to help suppress gastric acidity.
- Antacids, for short-term control.
- Mucosal protectants, to form a physical barrier between the stomach and acid.
- A course of nutritional digestive supplements.
Other components of treatment commonly include changes to your horse’s diet. Introducing lucerne or alfalfa hay or chaff into the diet has been shown to help many horses suffering from. Feeding a small amount of lucerne 30 minutes prior to intense exercise can assist with lining the horse’s stomach prior to work and therefore the splashing of acid which often causes discomfort during work doesn’t occur. For severe ulcers associated with pain, sometimes a medication called sucralfate is added to the treatment regimen. Sucralfate coats the ulcers to provide symptomatic relief and can aid ulcer healing along with omeprazole.
While the bulk of ulcer treatment is administered via feed and medication there are other things you can do to help. Ulcers in the glandular mucosa are primarily due to a disruption of blood flow so anything you can do to help promote blood flow around your horse will help. The Activo-Med Therapy System features Pulsed Electromagnetic (PEMF) and massage across the entire horse from ears to tail. The PEMF elements use a range of selected therapeutic frequencies to help promote cell efficiency and recovery while massage panels support blood flow to the heart which helps with increased blood circulation and helps the lymphatic system.
While the rug does an excellent job at delivering a whole body approach there are other attachments that can help to deliver more localised assistance. The Activo-Med Pecdominal Girth wraps around the horses chest and stomach area and provides both pulsed electromagnetic field therapy and massage to the pectoral and abdominal muscles. In a similar vein, the Activo-Med Power Pad and Hand Held PEMF Device can be moved around the horse’s body to assist in delivering a very localised treatment. This can be especially useful for horses with hindgut ulcers as they can often be difficult or awkward to treat but the flexibility of the power pad or handheld unit means you can direct treatment exactly where you need it.
If you have a horse who has been diagnosed with gastric ulcers and want to find some treatment methods to help them you can explore our range of therapy options for your performance horse here and help them to perform at their best.