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Equine Ulcers: Why do they happen? How to prevent them, and how do we treat them?

As caring horse owners, it is our responsibility to ensure the well-being of our equine companions. One common health issue that can affect horses is equine ulcers. These painful sores that develop in the stomach and hindgut can cause discomfort and potentially impact the overall health and performance of our beloved horses. In this blog post, we will delve into the causes behind equine ulcers, discuss preventive measures, and explore the available treatments, both pharmaceutically and naturally.

Horse looking out from stall door in a barn
Understanding Equine Ulcers

Understanding Equine Ulcers

Equine ulcers, specifically gastric ulcers, occur when the protective lining of the horse's stomach erodes due to excessive acid production or prolonged exposure to acid. The stomach's natural defense mechanisms, such as saliva and a protective mucus lining, become compromised, leading to ulcer formation.

How do ulcers occur?

There are several factors that can contribute to the formation of ulcers.

  1. Diet: Horses digestive systems are designed to process the continual intake of fibrous materials such as long stemmed grasses and legumes. High-grain diets and infrequent access to forage can disrupt the delicate balance of the horse's digestive system, increasing stomach acid and the risk of ulcers if that acid isn't doing it's job to breakdown feed.

  2. Stress: Horses subjected to stressful conditions, such as intense training, travel, or changes in their environment, are more susceptible to ulcers due to increased acid production.

  3. Medications: Certain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can compromise the stomach lining and lead to ulceration.

  4. Management Practices: Infrequent feeding, limited turnout, and prolonged stall confinement can also contribute to the development of ulcers.

Horse showing abdominal discomfort
Symptom: Horse point or biting at sides

What are the symptoms?

Signs of ulcers in horses can vary depending on the severity and the individual horse. Some common signs to watch for include:

  1. Changes in appetite: Horses with gastric ulcers may exhibit a decreased appetite or reluctance to eat. They may pick at their food, eat slowly, or exhibit signs of discomfort while eating.

  2. Weight loss: Chronic gastric ulcers can lead to weight loss or difficulty maintaining a healthy body condition despite a consistent diet.

  3. Poor coat condition: Horses with ulcers may have a dull or rough coat, which can be an indicator of ulcers or other underlying health issues.

  4. Changes in behavior: Some horses with gastric ulcers may show signs of irritability, depression, or a change in temperament. They may become more sensitive or resistant during handling, grooming, or riding. Ever had a "cinchy or girthy" horse?

  5. Digestive issues: Ulcers can cause digestive disturbances, including increased sensitivity in cinch/girth area, the flank area, excessive salivation, or intermittent colic symptoms such as mild abdominal discomfort, pawing, or stretching.

  6. Performance issues: Horses with ulcers may show a decline in performance, lack of focus, reluctance to work, or a decrease in overall athletic ability. They may be resistant to training cues or exhibit changes in gait or movement.

It's important to note that these symptoms can be indicative of other health conditions as well. Therefore, if you suspect your horse may have gastric ulcers based on these signs, it is essential to consult with a veterinarian for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Veterinarians can perform diagnostic tests, such as gastroscopy, to confirm the presence and severity of gastric ulcers.

How can we prevent ulcers?

Prevention plays a vital role in maintaining equine gastric health. Here are some measures to help prevent equine ulcers:

  1. Provide Adequate Forage: Ensure that your horse has access to high-quality forage such as hay or pasture grazing for the majority of the day. Frequent small meals or the use of slow-feeders can mimic the horse's natural grazing behavior and reduce stomach acid build-up.

  2. Balanced Diet: Work with a qualified equine nutritionist to create a balanced diet that meets your horse's specific needs, including appropriate amounts of grain and supplements.

  3. Reduce Stress: Implement stress reduction techniques such as maintaining a consistent routine, gradual transitions, and incorporating regular turnout or exercise.

  4. Medication Management: If your horse requires NSAIDs or other medications known to cause gastric irritation, work closely with your veterinarian to minimize their usage or provide gastric protectants alongside the medication.

How can we treat ulcers?

The treatment approach for equine ulcers also depends on the severity and location of the ulcers. Here are some options for both pharmaceutical and natural treatments:

Horse receiving a dose of oral medication
What's in that tube?

Pharmaceutical Treatments:

  • Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs): These medications reduce stomach acid production, allowing the ulcers to heal. Omeprazole is the most commonly prescribed PPI for equine ulcers.

  • Sucralfate: This medication forms a protective barrier over the ulcers, promoting healing and reducing discomfort.

  • Ranitidine: It decreases acid production and helps in ulcer healing. It is an alternative to omeprazole but needs to be administered more frequently.

*CAUTION! Overusing proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) can have potential risks and side effects:

  • Masking underlying health issues; it is important to treat the root cause and not simply a symptom.

  • Creating digestive issues and nutritional imbalances; stomach acids are required for the proper breakdown of food stuffs for optimal absorption.

  • Increased risk of infections; stomach acid acts as a natural barrier against ingested pathogens. By reducing stomach acid production, PPIs may increase the risk of certain infections, such as Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea and respiratory infections.

  • Reduced bone density: Long-term use of PPIs has been associated with a slight increase in the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis in humans. While the direct impact of PPIs on equine bone health is not well-studied, prolonged use of PPIs without proper monitoring and nutritional support could potentially impact bone density in horses as well.

  • Costly! PPIs can be costly medications, especially if used for an extended period. It is important to weigh the benefits versus the costs and consider alternative management strategies, such as diet modifications, stress reduction, and other treatments, to reduce the reliance on long-term PPI use.

Natural Treatments:

  • Diet Modification: Feed a diet rich in high-quality forage, with minimal grain or concentrates can balance the production of stomach acids.

  • Green Clay/Bentonite Clay: Naturally alkaline to buffer excess acids, reduce inflammation, absorbs toxins and promotes healing. These clays are also natural prebiotics and helps support healthy gut bacteria.

  • Aloe Vera: Aloe vera contains various compounds, such as polysaccharides and glycoproteins, that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties. As well as mannose-6-phosphate, that have been shown to stimulate the production of collagen and other factors involved in tissue repair. These components may help reduce inflammation in the stomach lining, promoting the healing process of ulcers. Aloe vera juice forms a protective barrier over the ulcerated area, providing a soothing and healing environment. This barrier can help prevent further irritation from stomach acid and other digestive enzymes, allowing the ulcer to heal.

  • Herbal Supplements: Certain herbs like marshmallow root, slippery elm, or licorice root have anti-inflammatory and soothing properties, which can aid in ulcer healing.

Horses grazing in a meadow
“I believe that for every illness or ailment known to man, that God has a plant out here that will heal it. We just need to keep discovering the properties for natural healing.” ― Vannoy Gentles Fite, Essential Oils for Healing: Over 400 All-Natural Recipes for Everyday Ailments

Ulcers are a common health concern. By understanding the causes behind equine ulcers, implementing preventive measures, and considering both pharmaceutical and natural treatments, we can provide our horses with the best possible care. Consult with your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive plan that addresses your horse's individual needs, helping to prevent ulcers and maintain their gastrointestinal health. Remember, a proactive approach can lead to happier, healthier horses.

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