Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Many Horses Today Are Living With Ulcers

Back in my dad's hay day, gastric ulcers were rarely heard of unless it was on the racetrack, but these days ulcers are a daily topic of conversation between veterinarians and all types of horse owners. Even though they are wide spread, I'm going to give you some tips to help manage your horses ulcers and give you the symptoms to watch out for to help you & your vet to diagnose the problem.

What are Ulcers?: Gastric ulcers occur in the stomach when the stomach lining erodes due to exposure to concentrated stomach acid over time. Stomach acid will naturally eat away the lining, but normally the blood flow to the stomach wall helps the body create new stomach lining. Ulcers form when the stomach acid eats away the lining faster than the body can regenerate stomach lining.

What Causes Ulcers?: Several factors are blamed for causing ulcers. In broodmares, the growing foal crows the organs causing the stomach acid to rise & sit higher in the stomach, over time this will cause an ulcer. When you give non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Bute or Banamine for an extended amount of time, ulcers can form. That's because these drugs cause the blood vessels to contract. Which means less blood flow to the stomach wall. The most common cause of ulcers is stress, and I'm not talking about stress that we have in our everyday lives like paying bills. Your horse is constantly under physiologic stress - meaning it's anything that gives your horse a fight or flight response. That kind of stress probably doesn't happen everyday in people. Think of when you get pulled over for speeding, your stomach falls, your heart rate goes up, & you feel hot, tingly, and flushed. That is your fight or flight response kicking in. Now you might not think your horse experiences this type of stress but here are some common things that can cause true physiologic stress:
  • Showing
  • Stable Confinement
  • Losing a pasture buddy
  • Changes in barn mates
  • Intense Training
  • Unpredictable Feeding Times
  • Visits from the vet or farrier

Here are some symptoms associated with ulcers:
  • Grinding Teeth
  • Girthiness
  • Behavioral Issues
  • Runny Feces
  • Finicky Appetite
  • Poor Body Condition
  • Recurrent Colic
  • Dull Hair Coat
  • Cribbing - Cribbing can be a way the your horse is trying to self medicate. However, managing the ulcer probably won't fix the cribbing.
Diagnosis & Managing Ulcers: Many horse owners will overlook the warning signs of ulcers. They say things like " my horse has always acted like that, he's fine". What they don't realize is that the horse could have had ulcers for years. Studies have showed that 25% - 50% of foals have ulcers 60% - 90% of adult horses have them. There are 2 ways of diagnosing gastric ulcers. First, your vet can scope your horse, but not all owners are keen to this. That's because you must withhold feed for 12-24 hours prior, and during scoping, your horse is sedated while the vet inserts a 9 ft. long tube with a camera on the end. this is the quickest way of diagnosing ulcers, but it can run between $300-$500. The other way of diagnosing ulcers is to actually give medication and wait to see if symptoms go away or are lessened. The next step is to decide which is best for your horse. Always work with your vet on this. Gastrogard is the gold standard for treating ulcers. However, Gastrogard can be pretty expensive. Depending on severity, you'll give half a tube to a whole tube per day. One tube of Gastrogard usually runs about $33-$50. Another way of treating your horse is over the counter treatments. Carney's is a great place to buy these products. We carry Neigh-Lox and U-7 Gastric Aid. These are products that when used daily will coat and soothe the ulcer. Any treatment should not be a one time thing, an ongoing management of ulcers. Of coarse, the best way is to prevent ulcers, and here are a few tips for preventing them:
  • Feed smaller, more frequent meals - this helps keep the stomach acid low
  • Add some beet pulp & alfalfa to the diet - the added protein & pectin have been shown to buffer stomach acid
  • House your horse with a buddy
  • When trailering your horse, consider using products like U-7 Gastric Aid - it helps coat the stomach lining preventing erosion

 When managing ulcers, it can be stressful, but just be thankful it's not the kind of stress that cause ulcers. If you have any other questions about ulcers, I recommend consulting with your veterinarian.


  1. Whenever there is a really long list of possible causes for a disease and there are performance horses that have none of the possible causes and never have but still have that disease, then something is unknown.

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