The equine digestive tract is designed to allow large quantities of forage to be consumed in a continuous manner. The upper part of the digestive tract is not designed for large single meals, which has become so common in the life of a stabled horse. These large meals can potentially overwhelm an equine’s stomach and small intestine, causing rapid fermentation of grain carbohydrates. This may result in a wide range of health issues for the horse, most notably gastric ulcers. Gastric ulcers in horses are more common than you would think and can be serious. It is believed that ulcers affect up to 90% of racehorses. Also horses that are stabled for extended periods can develop gastric ulcers. Factors that contribute to the development of ulcers include stress, physical activity, medications, high carbohydrate diets.
Ulcers in equines have been known to cause poor performance and pain; they can also be fatal when left untreated. In humans, eating stimulates the production of hydrochloric acid. In horses, because they are trickle feeders, hydrochloric acid is constantly being produced. If the horse does not eat, acid will accumulate in the stomach, and start to irritate the stomach lining, therefore causing gastric ulcers. Making sure that the stomach is rarely empty means acids have less of a damaging effect. Signs of gastric ulcers in adult horses include poor performance, poor appetite, change of attitude, weight loss or poor condition, mild colic.
Medications and changes in management practices are the cornerstones of therapy for equine gastric ulcers. Different medication may be used for different purposes; they may decrease acid production, buffer the acid that is produced or protect the lining of the stomach from the effects of the acids. In addition to medication, management changes are always necessary and should include:
- Increasing the amount of roughage given.
- Increasing the number of feedings per day.
- Putting horses out to graze would be the best alternative or as much as possible.
- Avoiding or decreasing the amount of hard feed.
- Use supplements to add vitamins and minerals, and vegetable oils to add calories.
- Giving probiotics to aid digestion.
The gastric ulcer treatment you decide on to implement depends solely on the individual horse and its environment. Be sure to follow your vet’s treatment recommendations, clinical signs may improve within 1-2 days of beginning the treatment, but it takes far longer for ulcer to actually heal. So be sure to finish treatments to the very end in order for the ulcer to completely heal.
Whereas medication can heal the ulcers, an after treatment such as an equine feed supplement is often recommended in the form of probiotics, as they help to re-establish a healthy flora environment in the horse’s stomach and colon. Probiotics can be fed continuously and can help to avoid ulcers recurring.
Furthermore it is a really good idea always to feed probiotics after an antibiotic treatment. While an antibiotic is getting rid of an infection it can be very hard on the stomach environment and the horse can experience a low immune defense and generally seem off after such a treatment. A course of pro-biotic can set things right again, so the horse can get back to its full health and therefore return quicker to its high performance level. Foals are also known to develop ulcers, especially for the first months of their lives, up to 57% of foals fall into this category. Probiotics has been shown to help foals get a good start and prevent scouring and upset stomachs. Supplementation is a good idea to maintain a healthy gut and prevent ulcers.