Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) is an extremely common condition particularly in performance horses and racehorses. Gastric ulcers are when the delicate lining of the stomach, oesophagus or small intestines become ulcerated with erosion’s forming in the mucosa (lining). EGUS can affect any horse from a newborn foal through to geriatric horse.
A horse’s stomach secretes stomach acids continuously all day and night, not only when they eat like in humans. Therefore the stomach and digestive tract constantly contains stomach acid which if not neutralised by saliva (which contains bicarbonate and mucous) or medication or buffered by food contained in the stomach it will then erode the stomach lining. If a horse is not grazing or eating all day and the stomach becomes empty the pH of the gut will change and the acid damages the stomach mucosa. When a horse eats or is continuously grazing they are producing saliva which passes to the stomach neutralising the acid.
Equine gastric ulcers are not caused by bacteria like in humans instead the problem is typically man made through management practices. Some circumstances which can cause and/or aggravate the development of gastric ulcers include;
* Stress ie. physical stress, illness or transport
* Diet that contains little to no roughage (hay/grass)
* Being confined in stalls with little grazing time
* Having an empty stomach due to fasting periods or witholding feeds prior to exercise
The signs of stomach ulcers or EGUS in horses are often subtle and non-specific meaning that they will often be overlooked and thought to be irrelevant. Signs that your horse may be suffering from gastric ulcers include;
* Poor appetite or not finishing feeds
* Attitude changes, going sour or developing vices such as cribbing, pacing or pawing
* Poor dull coat
* Weight loss or loss of condition
* Bouts of colic or colicy signs
* Decreased performance
* Teeth grinding
* Excess salivation
* Loose faeces or diarrhea
* Frequent recumbency
* Foals will often drink intermittently
* Haemorrhaging ulcers which are severe if left untreated can rupture and be fatal.
If you ever see any of the signs of gastric ulcers in your horse contact your veterinarian to discuss and diagnosis. To diagnose gastric ulcers a veterinarian will perform a gastric endoscopy and look for ulcers, lesions or erosions in the lining of the esophagus and/or stomach.
Prevention and treatment of stomach ulcers usually requires changes to management practices. Some modifications that will help and should be made include;
* Frequent feeding with roughage being available almost continuously either through paddock grazing or supplying hay
* Avoid or limit stressful situations where possible
* Do not exercise on a empty stomach. Feed a small amount of feed or lucerne half an hour prior to exercise
* Avoid anti-inflammatories
* Always provide ample fresh clean water
There are some medications and supplements available to treat stomach ulcers, allowing them to heal and also prevent their development. Some popular options include;
* Omeprazole based products which are proton pump inhibitors so they stop the mechanism that pumps stomach acid. Gastro Shield or Guard are popular omeprazole based horse products.
* Histamine type-2 (H2 antagonists) work by blocking histamine stimulated gastric acid secretion. Cimetidine and ranitidine products are used in horses like Ulcergaurd which contains ranitidine.
* Supplements to support gastro intestinal health, neutralize excessive gastric acid and maintain a healthy pH balance in the gut. Products like Kelato GastroAID and KER EquiShure are popular feed additives for this reason.
Treatment does take time and commitment and should be undertaken with veterinary consultation and support to achieve the best outcome for the horse.
Although the signs and symptoms of equine gastric ulcer syndrome are often overlooked it is a serious condition that should not be ignored as it is a major cause of decreased performance in horses and can also affect the absorption of nutrients and their overall health and well-being.
Originally published in My Pet Magazine Issue 15, Autumn/Winter 2018.
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