Diagnosing Stomach Ulcers

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After spending lots of quality time around your horse in his home environment and in the ring, you learn what his personality consists of. Your horse may be easy going, in your pocket, or maybe the barn trouble-maker. But when he starts acting grumpy, off his game, or not his usual self it may be a sign that he needs to have his stomach checked. Maybe one day he starts acting very aggressive towards his herd mates at feeding time when he usually munches happily in their presence or maybe he seems reluctant to put in his usual effort during a ride. Sometimes these things can be behavioral issues but sometimes they can be a sign of discomfort from stomach ulcers. If you suspect your horse may have ulcers give us a call!

A horse’s stomach has two parts- a non-glandular section that makes up the upper third and a glandular lower portion. The upper part of  the stomach doesn’t include the thick and protective mucus and bicarbonate  layer that the lower portion does which makes it much more vulnerable to ulcers caused by gastric acid. Ulcers in this part of the stomach have been compared to Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease in humans which uses gastric acid to damage the esophageal lining. The glandular portion of  the horse’s stomach is protected by prostaglandins whose job is to maintain the mucus and blood flow. This however doesn’t make it immune to ulcers. The lower section is less likely to develop ulcers but more likely to react to issues in diet, stress, and dehydration.

(Pictured are squamous ulcers)

(Pictured are glandular ulcers)

Possible Signs

  • Change in attitude
  • Restlessness (tail swishing, chewing when not eating, kicking at the stomach, sensitive when grooming)
  • Becoming aggressive around food
  • Kicking out at walls when eating
  • Acting off when being ridden, or sub-optimal performance
  • Weight loss and poor body condition (sometimes including a rough coat)
  • Stretching out as if to urinate
  • Leaving food only to come back for it later (if this has not always been a pattern with him)
  • Episodes of colic (mild)

Risk factors typically include how often your horse is fed, what percentage of his day is made up of grazing or eating hay, new or stressful situations, certain medications, and the intensity of his work.

Frequency In Feedings- Keeping your horse’s stomach full is very important when trying to prevent ulcers. Acid is being produced to help digest feed but when there is no more food to be digested it can affect the stomach lining. Try splitting up feed into multiple small meals every day instead of one large one.

Horses Need Grazing- Grazing and eating hay can help combat stomach ulcers by constantly keeping stomach acid at bay. Chewing constantly creates lots of saliva that acts as a buffer against the stomach acid. Chewing hay actually creates twice as much saliva as chewing grain.

Stressing Out- Horses that travel frequently have been shown to develop ulcers more often than horses that only go out occasionally. Horses can be stressed by trailering, having a new herdmate introduced, or by being in a new environment. This does not mean you need to quit taking him places for the rest of his life or end your show career but you do need to keep this in consideration.

Workload- A tough workout schedule like what is required for eventing, racing, or show jumping is more likely to cause ulcers than going on regular trail rides or being involved in a less intense riding program. Galloping causes the  internal organs to compress which causes acid to get into the upper and less protected part of the stomach. Galloping every once and a while will not cause ulcers but training that calls for constant galloping puts your horse at risk.

When it comes to diagnosing stomach ulcers an endoscope is the most accurate way to see what you are dealing with. When scoping a horse the ten foot long endoscope (camera) is passed through the nose to the back of the throat where it is swallowed and ends up in the stomach. This allows the doctor to see whether ulcers are present, and if so, to what severity. Food present in the stomach will obstruct the view for the doctor so horses need to be taken off feed 12 hours before scoping is to be done. Horses are allowed to drink water during this time.