Horses are not too different from people in that a stressful lifestyle can lead to the development of gastric or stomach ulcers.
The introduction of new portable diagnostic equipment, such as the endoscope, allows veterinarians to gain a clear view of the inner reaches of the horse’s stomach, and identify the physical presence of open ulcers. Findings have shown that ulcer occurrence can be as high as 80 per cent or more in performance horses. Although race horses were the first group studied, other groups of performance horses such as show horses and endurance horses have since been examined, and were found to have similarly high rates of gastric ulcers.
As awareness grows, more investigation is being done on the impact ulcers have upon equine performance and quality of life.
Ulcers often elude medical attention since their symptoms are varied and non-specific. Many horses fall in the category of “ADR” horses or horses that just “ain’t doing right. Symptoms such as poor appetite, picky eating habits, poor body condition, rough or dry hair coats, weight loss, low-grade non-specific colic, anxiety at feeding, teeth grinding, mental dullness, a change in attitude or a change in performance may indicate the presence of gastric ulcer(s).
Unlike humans, horses secrete stomach acid continuously, even when they are not eating. So, if they are not able to access food continuously, as is natural when grazing, the stomach acids begin to eat through the protective mucous coating and attack the stomach lining.
LET FEED BE THE BUFFER
Horses are essentially trickle feeders, eating more or less constantly. Whenever the stomach is empty for prolonged periods of time the caustic stomach acids, without a food source to work upon, contact the lining of the stomach causing open ulcers. Freechoice grass hay or grazing are great ways to prevent ulcers, as the horses’ nibbling constantly provides matter for the acids to work upon – the food itself provides the buffering effect. Hay in the stomach can also “buffer” the effects of grain meals since grains result in proportionally greater acid secretion.
Stress taxes horses both mentally and physically, and increases the likeliness of ulcers. Stressors might include environment, transportation, social dynamics or the demands of a discipline. Medications such as corticosteroids and non-steriodal anti-inflammatories such as phenylbutazone and/or “bute,” flunixin meglumine and/or Banamine, may similarly cause gastric ulceration.
The most common denominator in the lifestyle of horses with ulcers is found in modern horse-feeding practices. Simplifying the feeding practice to free-choice grass hay and miminizing grain meals can bring tremendous relief to horses. Depending on the horse, and the condition of the ulcer(s), medical treatment may be required to help heal ulcers. Omeprazole, available under the brand name of GastroGard, is currently the most effective symptomatic treatment for ulcers. This treatment can be quite expensive.
It is best to alleviate the cause(s) of ulcers, such as diet, and stressors, before turning to medications. Pay attention to the horse’s total environment and routine. Giving your horse the time and chance to be a horse in natural settings, with company, and a discipline he is comfortable with and enjoys will greatly reduce the chance of ulcers.
Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian specializing in equine practice at Westlock, Alberta.
Simplifyingthefeeding practicetofree-choice grasshayandmiminizing grainmealscanbring tremendousrelieftohorses.