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Gastric Ulcers: Why You Must Act Quickly

by Michelle Holtmeyer
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We tell you everything about the important topic “gastric ulcers”, which can be very dangerous for horses.

How do stomach ulcers develop?

The gut of a healthy horse is coated on the inner wall with a layer of mucus called the gastric mucosa. In the lower part of the stomach, the mucous membrane is thicker, in order to withstand the constant production of stomach acid. This acid is essential to break down the feed the horse eats and also to kill undesirable bacteria in the horse’s gut.

When living a natural life, horses eat almost constantly, because as herbivores, their main food (grass) is very high in fibre but low in energy. Hay as an alternative provides much the same nutrition. Chewing promotes the production of saliva, which helps to start the process of making use of the food and also helps to neutralise the acid in the stomach. However, if the horse’s access to forage is restricted – for example, if hay is only fed in the morning and evening with long periods with no access to food – the acidity in the stomach increases and the gastric mucosa comes under attack.

Concentrated horse feeds do not provide the same opportunity for the horse to chew as long stalks of grass or hay do. This can result in problems when the partly digested feed gets into the stomach, displacing acid into the upper part of the gut where the mucous membrane is not so thick. This can result in inflammation of the stomach or gastritis. If not spotted and treated quickly, this can lead to a gastric ulcer in a short space of time.

Signs of stomach ulcer in the horse

There’s no single indication that a horse is suffering from gastritis or an ulcer. However, certain symptoms are known to indicate inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. Also, your horse’s nature comes into play. If he or she is a stoical character, they may not show the signs of pain in the way a more sensitive horse would. This can make things more difficult to diagnose. If in doubt, call the vet.

Typical symptoms of a stomach ulcer

A number of typical symptoms can help you identify stomach ulcer in a horse. Watch out for:

  • A sudden loss of appetite
  • The horse grinding its teeth in pain
  • Lip and tongue movements
  • Frequent yawning
  • Painful reactions when touching the horse’s belly (when saddling or brushing)
  • A dull coat
  • Changes in temperament such as sleepiness or lack of concentration
  • A falling-off in performance
  • Horse taking longer to recuperate after work
  • Weight loss
  • Persistent diarrhoea

If you suspect gastritis or a stomach ulcer, ask your veterinarian to carry out an endoscopy, also known as a gastroscopy. This is the only certain way to the correct diagnosis. Afterwards, you can discuss treatment options with the vet. The endoscope is used to examine the oesophagus and gut for signs of ulcers.

Be warned – stomach inflammation or peptic ulcer can occur in a very short period of time. The vet may need the horse to fast before carrying out an investigation. Stop all concentrated horse feed right away. Withholding all forage can, as noted earlier, actually result in ulcers, and so check with the vet as to how to progress here.

What are the effects of a stomach ulcer?

Stomach ulcers result in a general deterioration in condition. It can be particularly noticeable in sport horses, who will definitely show a loss of form and dullness. The horse may well go off its feed, leading to more problems as the acid continues to attack the gastric membrane.

Gastric ulcer suspected? Act right away

When the stomach is inflamed or ulcers have developed, the vet will probably prescribe pain relief, anti-inflammatories and medication to protect the gut wall. Alleviating the symptoms will help to encourage the horse to keep feeding, but it’s just as important to work out why the horse has ulcers to avoid it happening again.

Feeding tips for stomach ulcers

Feeding the right food in the right way is key to maintaining gut health in the horse, and gut health is vital to the horse’s general well-being. Only feed the highest quality fodder and concentrates. Take a long hard look at your feeding regime and identify issues by asking yourself the following questions:

How much roughage do I feed my horse and when does it have access to it? Can I improve this by using trickle-feed hay nets which make the horse eat more slowly?

Is the horse’s concentrate to fodder ratio correct?

Am I offering the right supplements? Or is it in fact getting too much of a particular nutrient or mineral?

Sports horses cannot usually function on forage alone since it doesn’t supply enough energy for the demanding work they do. The horse will need some concentrated feed. Know what is in your concentrates and use those with lower starch and sugar content, as these short-term energy sources are the very thing that causes problems in the gastrointestinal tract.

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