Equine gastric ulcers can occur in adult horses of any age and breed and even young foals can suffer from gastric ulcers.
What are gastric ulcers?
Gastric ulcers are lesions in the mucosa of the horse’s stomach that can vary in size, number and severity. Mild lesions can be small and superficial, with only little reddening and thickening of the mucosa. Severe lesions can present as large, multiple ulcerations in the mucosa.
What causes gastric ulcers?
Normally the mucosa of the stomach is protected against the gastric acid by a layer of mucus. However, if the amount of acid is increased or the protective mucus layer reduced the underlying mucosa will be damaged. Some areas in the horse’s stomach are prone to erosion and gastric ulcers because they naturally lack the glands to produce mucus.
Suboptimal management, feeding and certain types of medication can predispose a horse for the development of gastric ulcers, including:
- Diets high in grain and/or low in roughage
- Restricted feed intake or periods of starvation
- Stress, e.g. due to intensive exercise or physiological stress
- Types of medication, e.g. high doses of anti-inflammatories over longer periods
Foals can develop gastric ulcers at a very early age. Common causes for gastric ulcers in foals are:
- Diarrhoea or other bowl disease such as impactions
- Prolonged time between feeding
- Infrequent nursing
- Infections or other general illnesses
Horses with gastric ulcers may show only vague signs of discomfort or abnormal behaviour that can be easily confused with other conditions. Some horses don’t show any signs although they are subsequently diagnosed with severe ulcers.
Gastric ulcers should be suspected if the horse shows one or more of the following signs:
- Unwillingness to perform as usual, including resistance to riding aids
- Picky appetite
- Transient colic signs directly after feeding, especially when feeding high grain feed
- Low Body Condition Score
- Resistance to girthing
Foals with gastric ulcers may present with one or more of the following signs:
- Poor appetite
- Abruptly stopping in the middle of nursing, occasionally combined with pawing
- Signs of colic, including rolling on the back
- Grinding teeth and dropping saliva from mouth
Diagnosing gastric ulcers
The only reliable way to diagnose equine gastric ulcers in the horse is to perform a gastroscopy.
Treatment of gastric ulcers
A combination of medication, adjustments to feeding and changes in management is needed to successfully treat gastric ulcers and prevent them in the future.
- Omeprazole is the treatment of choice for gastric ulcers in the adult horse and is usually administered into the horse’s mouth with a syringe.
- Sucralfate is considered to be beneficial for the treatment of glandular (pyloric) ulcers in horses.
- It is essential to know the exact weight of your horse in order to be able to dose the oral medication correctly. Discuss the dose and duration of treatment with your vet.
Changes in management:
- Natural grazing is beneficial for the horse’s health as it reduces stress and also aids in buffering the level of gastric acid in the stomach. Keep your horse out on pasture during the day as long as possible.
- During travelling the horse may benefit from a haynet as this will reduce the production of acid in the stomach.
Changes in feeding:
- Reduce the daily amount of high grain feed and substitute it with good quality hay or haylage.
- Try to feed smaller amounts more frequently instead of giving large amounts at a time.
- A small amount of a feed high in roughage is recommended 1 to 2 hours before exercise. This is considered to protect the stomach by building a fibre layer over the mucosa.
- Offer plenty of fresh and clean water at all times.
- If your horse is in training and requires a high energy diet consider consulting a nutritionist to work out the ideal diet to meet your horse’s needs while preventing gastric ulcers.