Horses originally evolved to graze all day on wide-open plains, but as horse care modernized and cities spread out into the country, they had to adapt to smaller spaces and larger meals fed only a couple times a day. Even if done properly, this, combined with other factors, can sometimes lead to the development of ulcers.
Equine ulcers happen when the lining of the stomach erodes due to prolonged exposure to the stomach’s acid, according to the American Association of Equine Practitioners. They are common in show horses, horses in training and those that haul frequently.
Quarter Horse News reached out to Dr. Kat DeHaan, a mixed practice veterinarian at Snake River Veterinary Center in Fruitland, Idaho, and reined cow horse earner of more than $81,000, to learn more about this issue that plagues many performance horses.
Beware of Subtle Symptoms
Sometimes horses, like people, just have a bad day, but if you notice consistent irritability and decreased athletic performance, ulcers could be suspect — especially if your horse that normally vacuums up all his hay and grain has suddenly become a picky eater. Other signs of ulcers include depression, weight loss, hypersalivation and a rough hair coat.
“I will always do a full physical and lameness examination to rule out any other problems, then recommend further evaluation for GI [gastrointestinal] ulcers,” DeHaan said.
The only way to know for sure if your horse has ulcers is through a gastroscopy. A small, three-meter-long tube with a camera on the end is inserted through the horse’s nostril, down the esophagus and into the stomach. This allows your veterinarian to visually inspect the stomach’s interior.
“I have heard of other tests available or coming soon that should be less invasive, but as of now, a gastroscopy is the only way to get a definitive diagnosis,” DeHaan said.
Treat with Appropriate Medication
Once a horse is diagnosed with ulcers, omeprazole paste is the treatment of choice, though less severe cases may not need treatment if there is a change in management. Omeprazole is the same drug in human medications like Prilosec OTC. It decreases acid production, giving the stomach lining time to heal.
Other similar medications, said DeHaan, are cimetidine, ranitidine and famotidine, all of which reduce acid in the stomach. Antacids can be used as well, though they need to be administered frequently throughout the day. Your veterinarian may also recommend products that coat the stomach lining, like Sucralfate or Misoprostol, which aid in creating a barrier against more damage from the acid.
Take a Look at Your Medications and Supplements
If your horse has a minor case and you choose not to give omeprazole paste, there are other things you can do to try to shrink his ulcers. Most important, DeHaan said, is discontinuing the use of any non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) the horse might be taking. Common equine NSAIDs include Bute, banamine, aspirin and Equioxx.
“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can lead to a decrease in normal stomach lining blood flow and inhibit natural protectants,” DeHaan said. “Stopping any NSAID administration is crucial in treating gastric ulcers.”
You can also try dressing the horse’s feed with corn oil — about 46 mL — as some studies have found it is effective in decreasing acid production and increasing natural stomach protectants, she added.
Feed Smaller Meals More Frequently
The horse’s stomach cells constantly secrete hydrochloric acid, so long periods between feedings, especially of high-concentrate diets, can result in an acidic environment within the stomach and destroy the stomach lining — the perfect setup for ulcers to form, DeHaan noted. If you add the stress of hauling, training and/or showing on top of that, it can cause horses to go off their feed.
“Feeding multiple, smaller meals throughout the day, or while showing, especially, can help keep saliva production increased to counteract the acid production, while providing a mechanical barrier between the acid and stomach lining,” DeHaan said. “The act of eating itself stimulates saliva amounts, which is more basic and counteracts the acid. That and ingestion of roughage both help to create the acid barrier.”
Manage Your Horse’s Stress Levels
At the end of the day, managing stress is one of the biggest factors in preventing equine ulcers. If you know your horse is about to undergo a stressful event, like hauling to a show or moving to a trainer’s barn, take action before it happens to help him manage it appropriately.
“Stress can inhibit normal stomach lining blood flow, which also acts as a barrier to stomach acid,” DeHaan said. “Giving a small amount of omeprazole while traveling or at shows has also been shown to decrease ulcer prevalence but is not enough by itself.”
Limiting usage of NSAIDS can also help maintain normal stomach protectant levels when your horse is stressed. By making sure your horse always has access to fresh, clean water that he likes while stalled, and offering him water every two to three hours when traveling, you can help mitigate the chance of him developing ulcers.