Understanding the Causes of Gastric Ulcers in Horses

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Understanding the Causes of Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Gastric ulcers are an often misunderstood health issue in horses, affecting their overall well-being and performance. In the UK, where equestrian sports and horse riding are deeply embedded in the culture, horse owners and enthusiasts must take steps to comprehend the causes of gastric ulcers. This knowledge can lead to better preventive measures, early detection, and improved management strategies. 

Dietary Factors and Feeding Practices 

One of the primary contributing factors surrounding gastric ulcers in horses is their diet. Horses are natural grazers, and in the UK, where pastures are abundant, they often spend a significant amount of time grazing, particularly during the spring and summer in the UK. However, modern feeding practices, such as infrequent feeding and high-starchconcentrate diets, can disrupt the natural digestive process and increase the risk of ulcers. Horses are designed to have a constant flow of forage through their digestive system, and deviations from this can lead to an imbalance increase in gastric acidity.

To alleviate reduce this risk, horse owners should prioritise providing consistent access to quality forage. Additionally, incorporating hay into the diet and using slow feeders can help mimic the natural grazing behaviour of horses and can be particularly beneficial for good doers whose forage provision may need to be restricted by slowing eating time and helping the forage last for longer. This approach aids in maintaining a healthy stomach environment and reducing the likelihood of gastric ulcers.

Stress and Lifestyle Factors 

Stress is another significant factor that plays a role in the development of gastric ulcers in horses, especially those occurring in the glandular region of the stomach (Equine Glandular Gastric Disease; EGGD). Horses are exposed to various stressors, including transportation, competition, changes in routine, and social dynamics within the herd. Injury or pain can also increase stress. Prolonged exposure to stress can lead to an overproduction thought to increase the production of stomach acid and have a negative effect on the function of the protective mucosal lining of the stomach, which may erode the protective lining of the stomach, increasing the risk of ulcers.

Horse owners should pay close attention to their horse’s behaviour and environment. Implementing consistent routines with the same handlers, providing ample turnout time, and ensuring a calm and positive atmosphere in the stable can help alleviate stress. Try using supplements that promote gastric health, such as those containing buffering agents or herbs with soothing properties, which can be beneficial in managing stress-related gastric ulcer risks.

Exercise and Training Intensity 

For horses in the UK engaged in equestrian activities and sports, the intensity and type of exercise play a crucial role and may also influence gastric health. High-intensity training, especially on an empty stomach, and a high frequency of exercise is thought to increase the risk of can lead to an increase in stomach acid, making horses more susceptible to gastric ulcers. Exercising more than 4 or 5 days per week is a risk factor for equine glandular gastric disease (EGGD) in racing Thoroughbreds and showjumpers, respectively. Endurance horses, eventers, and racehorses are particularly prone to these issues due to the rigorous demands of their disciplines.

Providing a small amount of forage and a suitable pre-exercise meal of chopped fibre such as alfalfa can help buffer stomach acid and form a fibrous mat to protect the stomach lining. Incorporating regular rest days into the training regimen allows the digestive system to function optimally and reduces the chances of gastric ulcer development.

Medication Usage 

Horses often receive medication, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), for various health issues. While these medications are often beneficial for managing pain and inflammation, prolonged or excessive use can contribute to the development of gastric ulcers. NSAIDs inhibit the production of substances that protect the stomach lining, making it more susceptible to the corrosive effects of stomach acid.

Horse owners should use only NSAIDs under veterinary guidance and adhere to recommended dosage guidelines. It should be noted that there is currently no evidence to indicate that the use of NSAIDs at normal recommended dosages will cause gastric ulceration, and reducing pain for the horse may also reduce stress which is important for supporting gut health. Try to incorporate gastric protective medications or supplements into the horse’s regimen during NSAID treatment to help maintain stomach health and reduce the likelihood of ulcers.

Parasitic Infestations 

Parasitic infestations, such as those caused by gastrointestinal worms, are big concerns for horse owners. These parasites can compromise the integrity of the stomach and intestinal lining, making horses more susceptible to gastric ulcers, as well as other problems such as colic. Proper parasite control is crucial for preventing infestations and reducing the associated risks.

Implementing a strategic deworming program based on veterinary recommendations and faecal egg counts is essential for maintaining optimal gastrointestinal health. Regular monitoring and treating horses for specific parasites when required contributes to the overall well-being of the horse, reducing the likelihood of gastric ulcers and other problems caused by parasitic infestations. 

Dental Health 

Dental health plays a critical role in the overall well-being of horses and poor dentition can significantly contribute to the development of gastric ulcers as it can affect forage intake. In the UK, where horses graze on a variety of forages, maintaining proper dental function is essential for effective chewing and digestion. Dental issues, such as sharp points, uneven wear, or dental malocclusions, can lead to inefficient chewing and swallowing and often a reduced forage intake., causing horses to produce less saliva.

Inefficient chewing may also affect saliva production. Saliva acts as a natural buffer, neutralising, helping to neutralise stomach acid and providing a protective barrier to the stomach lining. When horses produce inadequate saliva due to dental problems, reduced saliva production could mean that the stomach becomes more susceptible to the damaging effects of acid, increasing the risk of gastric ulcers. Regular dental check-ups and floating or rasping procedures conducted by qualified equine dentists are essential for identifying and addressing dental issues promptly, promoting optimal digestive function, and potentially reducing the likelihood of gastric ulcers.

By addressing these risks, managing stress, and adjusting exercise routines, horse owners can significantly reduce the possibility of gastric ulcers. Horses with ulcers may benefit from alfalfa-based feeds, with clinical success for EGGD being 47.7 times more likely in horses who were fed alfalfa pellets as part of their ration compared to horses who were not.  like those offered here at Dengie. Proactive measures, like providing a high fibre, low starch diets such as regular veterinary check-ups and the use of supplements that support gastric health, can contribute to the overall digestive health of horses, ensuring that they can help them to continue to thrive.