Ulcers Demand Your Attention
You’ve read the ads, seen the endoscope studies results and heard the talk: Gastric ulcers are incredibly common in domesticated horses. The incidence is higher in heavily stressed horses, like racehorses and endurance horses, but ulcers are being found in quiet horses that seem to have a plain, ordinary, easy life, too.
If your horse doesn’t quite seem like himself at times, not colicky, but definitely somehow uncomfortable, he may be battling an ulcer. Or maybe he doesn’t eat with the enthusiasm he used to have, or just lacks the “spirit” he used to have. You’ve ruled out other possibilities and are left to face the fact that you may well be seeing the symptoms of a chronic
Risk factors for developing ulcers include:
• Stall confinement.
• Sporadic feeding rather than constant access to grass.
• Exercise faster than a walk. (This causes enough rise in abdominal pressure to cause some acid movement into the unprotected areas of the stomach. The faster the horse moves, the more pressure and
• Feeding processed feeds rather than whole grains.
• Prolonged fasting (e.g. long trips, long period of time between last feed of the day and the morning feed).
• Any problem elsewhere in the gastrointestinal tract.
• Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids.
The only way to definitively diagnose gastric ulcers is to examine the stomach directly with an endoscope at a veterinary clinic or do a sucrose-absorption test (see sidebar). However, most horses are “diagnosed” by symptoms only.
Signs most suggestive of
• Grinding of the teeth.
• Belching noises.
• Slow eating, often walking away without finishing meals all at once.
These symptoms aren’t diagnostic of ulcers, but they do suggest discomfort associated with the upper GI tract/stomach. Less-specific signs frequently attributed to ulcers are:
• Sour, sulky attitude.
• Poor coat.
• Weight loss.
• Poor performance.
• Sensitivity to touch around the horse’s lower belly/sternum area.
Since the signs and symptoms are nonspecific — and overlap quite a bit with other causes of low-grade
While horses can develop some degree of gastric ulceration easily and under a wide variety of conditions, ulcers can and do heal spontaneously. On a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being only obvious reddening of the stomach lining and 3 is a deep ulcer, a horse with a grade 3 ulcer is more likely to actually have symptoms as a result and definitely requires treatment, while a grade 1 stomach irritation could be symptom-free and resolve on its own.
Exercise As A Risk Factor
Studies performed at the University of Florida have shown that horses moving at a rate faster than a walk experience increased
The more time the horse spends moving around faster than a walk, the greater the exposure of these portions of the stomach to highly acidic conditions. It’s a small wonder that a preliminary study looking for gastric ulceration in endurance horses found lesions in 67%. Most lesions were located in the
Given the prolonged, strenuous exercise it was surprising that more horses did not show ulcers, but common practices on rides may be why. Many endurance riders feed alfalfa, which has an excellent buffering effect in the stomach. Beet pulp is another favorite and remains in the stomach longer than other types of feed. Allowing the horse to stop for water at every opportunity will also at least temporarily dilute the acidity.
We found the antacid products were the most consistently effective in providing symptomatic relief for the greatest number of horses. Best results are obtained when using liquids given by oral syringe for the first one to two weeks, minimum of two times/day, before each feed, preferably three to four times/day, as well as immediately before work. The appetites of the horses improve within one to four days and most rapidly with intensive treatment.
Studies on the use of antacids in horses usually call for much higher doses than we found effective for control of symptoms. However, those studies are focusing on the dose required to decrease acidity in a horse that has been fasted, while our horses were allowed constant access to hay and offered concentrate on their regular schedules. Since the presence of food in the stomach also has a buffering effect, this may explain the lower effective doses.
It’s important in choosing a product for
As with any illness/disorder, always consult with your veterinarian first before instituting any treatment program.
Our favorite liquid antacid was U-Gard Solution. Other liquids performed similarly at
These are much more expensive than the liquid antacids, and they avoid the possible calming effect seen with the high-dose calcium or calcium/magnesium products. The G.U.T. is less costly than Rapid Response, but Rapid Response doubles as an effective joint supplement.
If liquids/pastes aren’t a good choice, and for
When prolonged symptom control is needed, effects of the antacids on the calcium/phosphorus/magnesium balance of the diet should be considered. To avoid the possible need to correct for mineral imbalances, consider using G.U.T powder or one of the herbal formulations.