Prevalence of ulcers in horsesStudies indicate the prevalence of gastric ulcers is high:
93% of Race horses
63% of Performance horses
37% of Leisure horses (that’s a 1 in 3 chance of developing gastric ulcers!)
Foals are also at risk, one study found 50% of foals develop stomach ulcers, particularly in the first few months of life while another found 84% of pre-weaned foals had ulcers and 100% had ulcers after weaning.
Causes of ulcers in horsesUlcers occur in the horse’s stomach when the digestive acids contact the stomach lining in the upper regions of the stomach. Unlike humans who produce acid only during meals, the horse’s stomach produces acid 24/7. This is why they need to eat throughout the day.
In a natural environment horses graze for up to 16-18 hours per day, the acidity of the stomach is reduced by forage passing through the stomach as well as by saliva which contains bicarbonate and is produced as the horse chews. If stabled horses have access to ad-lib forage (hay/haylage), this natural preventative process continues. But if they are fed high-concentrate diets with only limited access to forage, the acidity in the stomach increases.
Any period with low to no forage intake, either due to management practices or illness, leads to increased gastric acidity and a risk of ulcers. In addition, when horses exercise, the acidic fluid in the stomach splashes and exposes the upper, more vulnerable portion of the stomach (squamous mucosa).
How would you know if your horse had ulcers?Well there’s a chance you wouldn’t! Most horses with gastric ulcers do not show obvious outward clinical signs. They have more subtle signs, such as:
- Poor appetite
- Attitude changes
- Decreased performance
- Reluctance to train
- Poor body condition
- Poor hair coat
- Weight loss
- Excessive time spent lying down
- Low-grade colic
- Loose droppings
Clinical signs of ulcers in foals include intermittent colic (after suckling or eating), frequently lying down, intermittent nursing (interrupted nursing due to discomfort), diarrhea, poor appetite, grinding of teeth, and excess salivation. When a foal exhibits clinical signs, the ulcers are likely to be severe and should be diagnosed and treated immediately. Foals that have infrequent or interrupted feeding or are lying down for long periods have been found to have lower gastric fluid, suggesting that milk has a protective effect.
Diagnosing ulcers in horsesThe only way to conclusively diagnose ulcers is through gastric endoscopy, or gastroscopy, which involves putting an endoscope into the stomach and looking at its surface. This allows evaluation of the esophagus, squamous and glandular regions of the stomach, and proximal segment of the small intestine in horses. It helps adapting treatment and feeding management as these vary with the type of ulcers found.
Types of ulcers in horsesThere are two types of ulcers in horses:
Squamous ulcers which affect the white top third of the stomach, and reflect increased acid exposure of the tissue. These are associated with changes in appetite, slowed eating and poor performance or changing in behavior. Squamous ulcers occur with daytime forage deprivation, lack of access to water, high starch diets, pelleted feeds, straw feeding, intense exercise, change in housing, transport, and lack of daily horse-horse contact.
Glandular ulcers affect the pink bottom 2/3 of the stomach, especially the last 1/3 called the antrum. Ulcers form slowly and occur when the mucus coat that protects glandular tissue from acid fails. The clinical signs are more variable and non-specific. The mechanism of failure of the mucus coat is unknown, but it is likely that several different causes such as coarse alfalfa, straw bedding, drugs or plants and bacteria contribute to this failure.
Treating ulcers in horsesTreatment usually involves omeprazole which is very effective for treating squamous ulcers but less effective at treating glandular ulcers.
Dietary and lifestyle management need to be reviewed and where possible improve access to clean forage for long term relief.
How and what to feed a horse with ulcersGo back to basics and make sure there is constant access to fresh water and plenty of clean forage in the diet. Providing access to forage for the majority of the time can be difficult when horses eat their ration much quicker than if they were roaming around looking for it. Using a Forager slow feeder helps make their forage ration last longer because they have to extract the hay out through small holes while allowing them to eat in a natural position.
Photo credits: Equine Sports Medicine Practice
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