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Standlee Barn Bulletin

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Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Gastric Ulcers in Horses

We are in the heat of performance season (no pun intended)!

Do you know the prevalence of gastric ulcers in horses?

  • 93% of race horses
  • 58% of show horses
  • 25-50% of foals

Whether you’re a race horse trainer, western performance horse owner, dressage guru or compete in local or regional horse shows, there is a good chance your horse could develop gastric ulcers. It’s important to know the causes, signs and preventative steps, to either minimize the risk of getting gastric ulcers in the first place, or the opportunity for them to return in the future after treatment.

What Does Forage Have To Do With Gastric Ulcers?

A study, looking at feed type on gastric ulcer formation, showed an increased risk of gastric ulcers in young growing horses consuming high grain diets as compared to a forage diet. After 4 weeks on the high grain diet, the ulcer scores for the horses had increased by about 30%, and after 8 weeks, the scores had increased about 3-fold. Therefore, a diet high in roughage appears to support better digestive health as reflected by the gastric ulcer scores, whereas high grain diets may cause greater gastric irritation.*

Other research groups have focused on the type of forage fed to horses and its effect of ulcer formation and severity. Providing good-quality alfalfa or alfalfa-mix forage can help buffer stomach contents and reduce gastric acidity. Alfalfa forage, due to the presence of calcium, has been shown to buffer gastric contents and decrease gastric ulcer severity in horses housed in stalls and exercising.**

Alfalfa Field

5 Common Questions About Gastric Ulcers

1. Question – What is the cause of gastric ulcers?

Answer – This simple answer is acid accumulation in the stomach. Excess acid accumulation and thus ulcers are caused by a variety of factors including: diet and feeding management - feeding high levels of concentrates, feed deprivation and types of feeds (timothy vs alfalfa, alfalfa is known to have acid buffering abilities), stress of training or disease, mechanics of training (splashing of acid in stomach while exercising) as well as long term use of medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like “Bute.”

2. Question – How can you tell if a horse has ulcers; What are the signs and symptoms?

Answer – The symptoms of gastric ulcers vary depending on the severity and the individual horse. Most commonly owners report behavioral changes in their horse. Changes in behavior can be an increase in nervousness while tacking up or riding, a tendency toward a more aggressive behavior (ears pinned etc.), and some horses stop eating and therefore lose weight. Other signs include, but are not limited to, poor athletic performance, dull coat, altered eating behavior, weight loss, diarrhea, and colic. In foals, teeth grinding (a sign of pain) and excessive salivation are common.

3. Question – How can gastric ulcers be diagnosed?

Answer – The only way to definitively diagnose equine gastric ulcers is through gastric endoscopy, or gastroscopy, which involves placing an endoscope into the stomach of the horse and looking at its surface. This procedure is relatively easy to perform and minimally invasive. Horses are typically fasted for 12 hours prior to the exam and water is withheld for 4 hours.

4. Question – How can gastric ulcers be treated?

Answer – The treatment of stomach ulcers in horses involves a combination of changes to feeding management, medical therapy, as well as reducing stress on the horse. Turnout onto green grass pasture along with altering the feeding regimen is likely the fastest method to allow the ulcers to heal. If concentrates are to be fed, they should be fed in small amounts at frequent intervals. Adding alfalfa to the diet will also help by buffering stomach acid.

By nature, horses are grazing animals, spending much of their day feeding. The grazing horse has a constant flow of saliva and passage of grass into the stomach, buffering stomach acid.

5. Question – Once a horse has ulcers, will they always be prone to them?

Answer – Yes, if the horse is managed in the same way as when the ulcers developed in the first place, the horse will likely develop ulcers again. However, if horses are properly medicated and their feed management is adjusted, it will greatly minimize the reoccurrence of ulcers.

Still have questions on gastric ulcers? One of our Standlee equine nutritionists, Dr. Tania Cubitt, and Dr. Hoyt Cheramie with Boehringer Ingelheim, goes into further detail about the following points in a webinar recording titled, “Gastric Ulcers in Horses – What Causes Them and Proper Management”:

  • Normal Gut Function
  • What Are Gastric Ulcers?
  • What Causes Gastric Ulcers?
  • Medical Treatment
  • Prevention Management Strategies

Print and Laminate This For Your Barn Or Home

There is a good chance you have your veterinarian on speed dial, but as a helpful reminder or for those who assist with caring for your horses, this easy to read infographic and veterinarian contact information, is something you’ll want to keep handy. But don’t keep it all to yourself! Share this page link with your best friend Lisa, your niece Jennifer and your go-to Facebook group of horse gal pals. They’ll love you for it.

Click on the image below to download the pdf:

Equine Gastric Ulcer Infographic

*Flores, R.S., C.R. Byron, K.H. Kline. 2009. Effects of Feed Type on Growth and Gastric Ulcer Formation in Weanling Horses. J. Eq. Vet. Sci. 29(5):484-485.

*Nadeau, J.A., F.M. Andrews, and A.G. Matt hew. 2000. Evaluation of diet as a cause of gastric ulcers in horses. Am. J. Vet. Res. 61:784-790.

*Lybbert, T., P. Gibbs, N. Cohen, B. Scott , and D. Sigler. 2007. Feeding alfalfa hay to exercising horses reduces the severity of gastric squamous mucosal ulceration. In: Proc. Amer. Assoc. Eq. Practnr. 53:525-526

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