Equine gastric ulcers can affect any horse at any age. Up to 90 percent of racehorses and 60 percent of show horses, as well as non-performance horses and even foals are affected by equine gastric ulcers. These are the result of the erosion of the lining of the stomach due to a prolonged exposure to the normal acid in the stomach.
The horse’s stomach is divided into two parts. The bottom part is glandular and secretes acid and has a protective coating to keep it from being damaged by acid. The top portion of the stomach is designed for mixing of the contents of the stomach and does not have as much protection from the acid. This is the most common place to find gastric ulcers.
Ulcers are often a man-made disease. Stall confinement alone can lead to the development of gastric ulcers. When horses are fed two times per day, the stomach is subjected to a prolonged period without feed to neutralize the acid. Furthermore, high-grain diets produce volatile fatty acids that can contribute to the development of ulcers.
Stress (both environmental and physical) can also increase the likelihood of ulcers. Even typical training and recreational showing have been shown to induce ulcers within a five to seven day period. Hauling and mixing groups of horses as well as horses in training, can lead to ulcers. Strenuous exercise can decrease both the emptying function of the stomach and blood flow to the stomach, thereby contributing to the problem.
Finally, chronic administration of any non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as phenylbutazone, flunixin meglumine or ketoprofen, can decrease the production of the stomach’s protective mucus layer, making it more susceptible to ulcers.
The only way to definitively diagnose ulcers is through gastroscopy, which involves placing an endoscope into the stomach and looking at its surface. To allow this, the stomach must be empty, so most horses are held off feed for 12 to 24 hours and not allowed to drink water for two to three hours. With light sedation and possibly a twitch, the endoscope is passed through the nostril and down the esophagus into the stomach. The light and camera on the end of the endoscope allow the veterinarian to observe the stomach lining.
Pharmocological Therapy includes Ompeprazole, Cimetidine, Ranitidine, Coating or Binding Agents
Prevention of ulcers is key. Limiting stressful situations, frequent feedings and free-choice access to grass or hay is imperative. This provides a constant supply of feed to neutralize the acid and stimulate saliva production, which is nature’s best antacid. When this is not adequate or possible, horses at greatest risk will benefit from medication to decrease acid production.
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