Could your horse be suffering with stomach ulcers?
Stomach ulcers in our horses is more common than you think. Approximately 33% of leisure horses, up to 63% of sport horses and nearly 90% of race horses can suffer from this painful condition. We are investigating and diagnosing many more cases now because of the ease in which we can examine the stomach using a small scope. This procedure allows us to fully examine the lining of the stomach and the first part of the small intestine and we can reach a diagnosis within several minutes.
Why is Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndome so common?
Horses stomachs are designed to constantly produce acid which is necessary to help with the digestion of food. They constantly produce acid because in the wild, when horses are roaming the plains, they are constantly eating “little and often” meaning they are always digesting food. In addition because they have been designed to be grazing continuously, they produce a lot of saliva which helps to nuetralise the acid in the stomach. But, because we have domesticated horses and we decide when they should have their meals there are periods of time during the day and night when their stomachs are practically empty. When an empty stomach is producing acid without any food to digest then the lining of the stomach becomes irritated, inflamed, eroded and leads to the formation of ulcers.
What clinical signs should you look out for?
Over the many years that I have been diagnosing and treating stomach ulcers in horses, I have met with lots of owners who have described many different clinical signs. Here are the most common complaints that get reported to me;
- Their horse may have lost condition after moving yards, moving fields or having being away at a show
- They might have a dull and starry coat of hair
- The horse may be prone to suffer from bouts of low grade spasmodic colic
- They might be stressy and wind suck or crib bite leading to a loss in condition or performance
- They may not be performing as well as they have been and have become a little “sour”
- They may show clinical signs of abdominal discomfort (pulling faces, bucking, trying to kick you) when you are grooming them or tacking them up and tightening the girth
Diagnosis of stomach ulcers:
The easiest way to determine whether your horse is suffering from stomach ulcers is to have your veterinary surgeon perform a gastroscopy. This is a relatively simple procedure which is done in a sedated, starved horse. Your vet will place a small camera up the nose and down the oesophagus (food pipe), into the stomach and examine the lining of the stomach. Please see the attached images which show an increasing severity of stomach ulcers. The first picture is of a normal stomach lining and moving through the images you will see more severe, red erosion and ulceration of the lining of the stomach.
The mainstay of treatment of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome is with the drug, Omeprazole, a proton pump inhibitor. This drug reduces the amount of acid produced in the stomach giving the ulcers a chance to heal and helping to prevent further ulceration. For the first month the horse will be on a “treatment” dosage which is 4mg /kg which is then reduced to the “maintenance” dosage of 2mg/kg for 4 weeks. I advise clients to rescope the horse after 6 weeks to ensure that the ulcers have healed.
Treatment and prevention of the recurrence of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome must also include dietary and management changes. What you are trying to achieve is mimicking how your horse would eat in the wild while being stabled and with limited turnout. “Little and Often” is the phrase to remember!
Dietary changes can include:
- Constant access to good quality forage and water
- Try feeding forage approximately 30 mins before exercise. A moderately full stomach will prevent splashing of acid while exercising
- Reducing the amount of starch in concentrates feed
- Split concentrate or hard feed in smaller feeds ie: breakfast, lunch and dinner
- Include chaff and corn oil or rapeseed oil in every feed
- Speak to a nutritionist with the feed company you are using and they can advise you about what products are currently produced by them which will help with a horse that has been diagnosed with stomach ulcers
- Gastric supplements can also be part of a successful treatment regime
Management changes can include:
- Try and turn your horse out in the paddock as much as possible. Again, this is trying to return them to their natural environment
- Make sure your horse always has access to good quality forage and water
- Horses are a herd animal, love company and hate being on their own. Try to avoid periods where your horse is isolated from other companions. Being isolated will cause them to stress and stress has a strong link to stomach ulcers
If you are concerned that your horse may be suffering from Gastric Ulcer Syndrome we would recommend contacting your vet or contact us here for general advice about this condition.
Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome can be treated and managed long term in your horse. We are always keen to hear from customers about their own experiences with this condition. Please contact us or share with other people via our Facebook page, Instagram or Twitter.
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