Gastric Ulcers in Horses
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the stomach meridian is linked with the emotion of worry or anxiety. So it’s no surprise that an overabundance of this type of emotion is connected with stomach (gastric) ulcers as well as other gastro-intestinal disorders in people. The same seems to hold true for horses.
So what causes anxiety or stress for horses? Well, several things can, but not eating is at the top of the list. I know I get stressed when I can’t eat, but horses do so even more–their digestive systems are designed for continual consumption of forage, and when this isn’t allowed, problems are likely to develop.
A gastric ulcer forms when gastric acid irritates the lining of the stomach, creating a lesion (or lesions). Gastric acid is produced continuously by the horse, but saliva (formed by eating) counteracts the effects of the acid. When the stomach is empty, too much acid builds up and the problem begins. Dr. Juliet Getty goes into this explanation further in the Q&A posted on my blog.
I wrote an article for The Horse not long ago about a study that evaluated the most ‘physically effective fiber’ for horses–in other words which type of food (forage or concentrates) requires more chewing time and jaw muscle activity, leading to more saliva-production. You can probably guess which food-type won out!
Gastric ulcers seem to be mostly a man-made problem–our management practices with our horses play a major role. The condition reportedly affects as many as 90% of race horses and 60% of performance horses, but other horses may develop gastric ulcers as well. Here’s a list of the main factors associated with gastric ulcers in horses:
- stall confinement
- high-grain diet
- strenous exercise
- long periods where horse has no access to forage
- overuse of NSAID’s like bute and banamine
Surprisingly, many horses show no signs of having gastric ulcers, though some horses may have subtle symptoms that can worsen over time. Here’s a list of symptoms associated with gastric ulcers from mildest to more severe:
- change in appetite/ weight loss
- poor athletic performance
- poor hair coat
- teeth grinding
- excessive salivation
- dorsal recumbancy (lying on back)
The only definitive way to diagnose gastric ulcers in horses is by gastroscopy, in which a vet runs a tube with a camera down the horse’s nose and into the stomach. If your horse is diagnosed with ulcers, the vet may prescribe medication, but changes in the horse’s management and feeding are essential for eliminating the problem as well. These tips (recommended by the AAEP) can help with gastric ulcer prevention and/or treatment:
- Allow free-choice access to grass or hay.
- Feed more smaller, more frequent meals.
- Decrease or eliminate grains (especially sweet feed) that form Volatile Fatty Acids (VFA’s).
- Decrease stress caused by isolation of stalled horses by having other horses nearby and visible.
So basically, allowing the horse to live as naturally as possible is key in dealing with gastric ulcers. And the old maxim is more true than ever with gastric ulcers in horses–an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!