Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Numerous surveys throughout the world have revealed that stomach ulcers are incredibly common in horses – however, not every horse with an ulcer shows symptoms so many cases remain undiagnosed.

A recent survey in Sydney showed that 89% of working racehorses had stomach ulcers, while a survey at a large pacing stud in NSW revealed an incidence of 95%. In foals, particularly those less than a few months old, the incidence appears to be somewhere around 50%. A recent US study has shown that other competition horses also suffer from ulcers, with 58% of show horses in that study affected.

Causes of Gastric Ulcers
In adult horses the ulcers are thought to result from a combination of factors, including:

  •   Horses evolved as grazing animals, constantly eating high roughage diets. However, performance horses are often    stabled and fed 2 hard feeds a day with low levels of roughage - their stomach is often empty for many hours of the day and stomach acid is continuously secreted, and may irritate and ulcerate the stomach lining.
  •   High grain/low roughage diets promote acid secretion 
  •   Exercise stress from training increases stomach acid secretion 
  •   Nervy horses seem to have a higher risk of stomach ulcer
  • The most common sign of a stomach ulcer in an adult horse is a change in eating behaviour e.g. horses suddenly start to become pick eaters and fail to clean up their hard feeds

Signs and diagnosis of gastric ulcers  
Due to the decreased appetite the horse will start to lose coat and then body condition. Frequently they will have attitude changes to work and may become quite sour in their behaviour, and racing performance drops. If the ulcers are severe enough to bleed, the horse may have a lowered red blood cell count and haemoglobin level. After drenching with saline drenches, horses that have bad ulcers can become very colicky due to the pain of the salty solution contacting raw ulcerated areas.

The only definite way to confirm the presence of stomach ulcers is to get the horse ‘scoped’ with an endoscope.

 

Treating gastric ulcers  
Most ulcers will heal spontaneously if the horse is taken out of work and put into a paddock. However, this is not usually practical in performance horses so medication and change in management are required.

Anti-ulcer drugs for horses have recently become available, however they are expensive, must be withdrawn prior to racing and once treatment is stopped the risk of ulcers recurring is high if the predisposing feeding, training and management factors are still present. You will need to consult us for advice.

Clean-Up is a natural herbal and B-Complex supplement that appears to improve the appetite of horses with ulcers. It contains Slippery Elm Bark, which is thought to soothe and protect the stomach lining, and specially coated B-Complex vitamins and yeast help to stimulate the appetite. As there is no restriction on its use in racehorses, it can be used to follow on after other anti-ulcer medication to try to prevent the ulcers recurring. Initially give as slurry mixed with water by oral dosing syringe immediately before feeding hard feeds, then as a powder in the feed once appetite is re-established.

 

Tips on managing gastric ulcers

  •  Horses with ulcers often do better when trained from a paddock
  •  Decrease grain and increase roughage, and feed more frequent but smaller hard feeds –   ideally do not feed more than 2kg of grain per meal.
  •  Cut back work until the appetite improves, then re-introduce harder work gradually.
  •  Do not work horses on an empty stomach – ensure that hay is available overnight. Lucerne hay has shown to be particularly beneficial.
  •  Avoid depriving horses of feed for more than a few hours as ulcers can develop very quickly when feed is withheld
  • Long truck or float trips are often associated with food deprivation so make sure the horse has access to a hay net during long trips.
  •  Horses with bleeding stomach ulcers should be provided with additional iron and blood-building minerals e.g. Ironcyclen Liquid, FBC-Bloodfood granules