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Equine Gastric Ulcers

With horses producing up to 16 gallons of acidic gastric juice in a single day, it should come as no surprise that they can suffer from gastric ulcers. The ulcers can seriously impact a horse’s behaviour and unfortunately, horses produce gastric acid even when they are not eating. Humans only produce acid when we eat. The good news is that it is possible to detect ulcers through endoscopy and treatment is effective.

Are ulcers becoming more common?

It wasn't so long ago that ulcers were difficult to detect but endoscopy equipment is now much more accessible for horse owners. This means we can more frequently find and address equine ulcers. This may be giving the impression that ulcers are more common than they used to be when it is simply the level of awareness which has increased.

How do ulcers impact equine health?

The symptoms of gastric ulcers include colic, weight loss, poor coat condition, lack of appetite and the inability to gain weight. A horse’s performance will be negatively impacted due to discomfort as this leads to the horse constricting its girdle to address the pain, resulting in a shorter stride. The horse may also feel the desire to change leg due to the discomfort.

Each horse will display a different set of symptoms, so it is important to be on the look-out for changes in behaviour. Some may be less keen to exercise, others will swish their tails. A horse may start to dislike being touched in certain places or to show changes in their eating habits.

How quickly can ulcers develop?

Gastric ulcers can develop in as little as five days.

Can antacids help?

Using an antacid can be beneficial for horses for short periods of time. You could administer antacids before exercise as activity increases acid production. The antacids will ease the discomfort but won’t cure the problem.

The role of saliva

If a horse isn’t eating or chewing as much as usual throughout the day, saliva production is reduced. Saliva contains bi-carbonate, the natural buffer to acid. Any decrease in saliva could impact the gut and make ulcers more likely.

How do you treat gastric ulcers?

Vets use the drug omeprazole (also known as Prilosec and Losec) to treat gastric ulcers. Most horses respond well to this drug but infections could exacerbate any issues and must be addressed with different drugs. Changes to feed may be required to solve the problem in the longer term as ulcers can return after the completion of a course of omeprazole if other lifestyle factors are not altered.

Feeding more frequently but in smaller amounts may help. As well as longer periods of turnout if a horse is prone to ulcers.

What should you do if you suspect ulcers?

If you note any changes in behaviour, it is important to consult your equine vet. If they have the appropriate equipment it will be quick and easy to identify ulcers or to eliminate them as a cause for the horse’s issues.

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