Equine gastric ulcer syndrome is a common condition in horses and foals.
While any horse can develop gastric ulcers, they tend to be more common in horses in high levels of work. Studies have shown that the prevalence of gastric ulcers can be as high as 60-90% in show horses and thoroughbred racehorses.
Anatomy of the Equine Stomach
The equine stomach consists of two sections, the squamous (fundus – non-glandular) portion and the glandular portion. The two sections are separated by a line called the margo plicatus. Ulcers in the squamous portion of the stomach develop from the excess production of gastric acid, which damages the lining, leading to the development of an ulcer.
The glandular portion of the stomach has a protective coating to buffer the gastric acid, making it less prone to ulceration than the squamous portion. Ulcers in the glandular part of the stomach are less well defined and research is still being done to investigate their causes.
Risk Factors for Developing Ulcers
- Feeding a high grain / low forage diet
- Limited access to pasture
- Changes to the usual routine
- Intensive training / change in workload
- Illness or surgery
- Horses that are stabled and being fed twice daily with limited forage access in between meals
- Breeding stallion
- Medications eg. Phenulbutazone
Take a look at the Virbac Ulcer Risk Calculator.
Common signs of gastric ulcers
Horses are prey animals and it is their natural instinct to hide discomfort. This leads to many ulcer cases going un-diagnosed and horses living in pain.
The common signs of gastric ulcers include :
- poor performance
- change in behaviour (eg. sour disposition)
- poor appetite
- weight loss
- dullness, lethargy
- Abdominal pain / colic / “girthiness”
- Crib-biting or wind-sucking
- unwilling/reluctant to work
How are gastric ulcers diagnosed ?
The only way to definitively diagnose gastric ulcers is via gastroscopy (performed at Murdoch University) . The horse must be fasted overnight to allow complete emptying of the stomach. The horse is then sedated the following morning and a small camera is passed through the horse’s nose, down the esophagus and into the stomach. This allows for visualization of all areas of the stomach. The ulcers are then graded according to their severity.
However, as funds are limited for some owners, we often undertake a therapeutic trial. This involves assessing the horse’s response to a treatment course of omeprazole. As every horse is different, we must examine your horse first to determine if the underlying cause for your horse’s symptoms is gastric ulcers.
Another modality we implement to diagnose gastric ulcers is sensitivity to certain acupuncture points. Dr Tania Sundra is trained in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine and there appears to be a correlation with several acupuncture points in the diagnosis of ‘stomach pain’.
Treatment & Prevention
At Avon Ridge Equine Veterinary Services, we strongly believe in a multi-factorial approach to the treatment of gastric ulcers. We always aim to practice good medicine. Simply dispensing medications to our clients without discussing other important factors will not benefit them or their horses in the long run.
We recommend that gastric ulcers are treated with :
1. Medication : A drug called omeprazole (eg. Gastrozol) is used to treat gastric ulcers in horses. Omeprazole works by inhibiting and regulating gastric acid release into the stomach. This helps reduce the acidity of stomach environment and enables healing of the ulcers. A treatment course typically lasts 28 days, with some severe cases requiring treatment for up to three months.
2. Dietary Modification : Recent research has proven the need to implement a high fibre, low NSC (ie. grain), high fat diet to aid in the treatment of gastric ulcers and prevent their recurrence. We can help with formulating a ration based on the requirements of your horse
3. An overview of management practices : Whilst the first two steps listed above will go a long way to helping relieve some of the symptoms of gastric ulcers, in order to prevent them recurring, we need to identify the reason your horse has ulcers to begin with. A number of factors can increase ‘stress’ in your horse which has been shown to be a pre-disposing factor in the development of gastric ulcers. Does your horse have adequate access to turnout ? Is your horse able to interact with other horses during the day ? Does your horse have access to ad lib hay ? What are your floating practices – do you take breaks for long journeys ? Is your horse able to eat whilst travelling ?