Signs & Symptoms of Stomach Ulcers in Horses

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Changes in your horse's behavior or eating or physical changes can signal equine gastric ulcer syndrome -- another name for ulcers. Performance horses and other horses under stress are particularly prone to EGUS. Your veterinarian can perform a non-surgical gastroscopy , or endoscopy, on your horse that allows him to view any ulcers -- as well as any other abnormalities -- in your horse's stomach.

Foals -- infant and young horses -- can also suffer from ulcers.

Signs that Mimic Colic

Horses with EGUS can display symptoms that seem to signal mild colic: in particular, refusing to eat or picking at their food, and lying down more than usual. This is also true for foals, particularly after eating. Contact your veterinarian if you suspect colic, but treating only the colic symptoms can overshadow a possible diagnosis of EGUS.

In some horses, EGUS can actually cause a horse to colic. When the colic gets treated, the horse owner believes the issue is resolved -- until another colic episode. If your horse appears to have frequent bouts of mild colic, talk to your vet about an examination for EGUS.

Physical Appearance

Horses with ulcers often appear to be in poor health. Note if your horse experiences weight loss or deteriorating body condition with no dietary or exercise changes. These changes, along with a dull, lackluster coat, can also indicate a worm infestation, so keeping up to date on your deworming protocol or getting a fecal count will assist you in pinpointing the cause.

Attitude

Horses with EGUS suffer. They experience pain and discomfort, particularly when eating or exercising. At a minimum, this discomfort can create a feeling of malaise -- you may notice your horse "is just not herself." She may even seem depressed.

And the disorder can also cause performance issues. She may seem reluctant to move forward or respond willingly to your riding aids. This is true for any sport, whether refusing a jump she has jumped dozens of times, sluggishly running a barrel pattern or not adeptly executing a half pass. Less astute horse owners or their trainers might label these training issues or determine the horse is simply having a bad day. These may also be factors, so it's important to note when the problems occurred and then look for other signs that might support seeking a different explanation.

Over time and without treatment, EGUS can cause your horse to be extremely sensitive to touch. Watch for sensitivity when you fasten her girth or cinch. Also note sensitivity in the withers and hindquarters, particularly if she suddenly starts bucking during your rides.

Other Diagnostic Options

While the gastroscopy is the only definitive diagnosis for equine ulcers, it can only pinpoint the presence of ulcerated tissue in your horse's esophagus and stomach -- not in the hind gut. It may also be cost prohibitive for horse owners of modest means, so owners might simply administer a popular treatment, containing omeprazole. If the horse improves, they conclude they indeed had ulcers. This can be unnecessarily costly. And since omeprazole blocks the production of stomach acid to allow the suspected ulcers to heal, that lack of stomach acid can lead to other digestive problems. Stomach acid protects the stomach against harmful bacteria that can cause illness or even deadly diarrhea.

Another diagnosis option comes from the acupuncture field. An acupuncturist or veterinarian familiar with acupressure points can palpate specific points that can signify EGUS. Some of these points include the girth, clavicle, withers and hindquarter areas. Particularly if your horse exhibits any other symptoms in addition to sensitivities in some or all of these points, you should talk to your veterinarian about next steps for a definitive diagnosis or treatment.

Combined Treatment and Management

Omeprazole will not treat ulcers in the hind gut, so while your horse may appear better after treatment, it may be due to reduced pain from treating stomach ulcers while the hind gut ulcers remain. Talk to your veterinarian about adding coating or buffering agents to address any hind gut issues. You can also safely keep your horse on many of these ingredients, such as papaya, as a maintenance and preventive measure against a recurrence of EGUS. Your veterinarian may recommend a combined treatment that will address both stomach and hind gut ulcers. Follow the recommended treatment protocol carefully, even if it means administering it several times a day.

In addition to medications, talk to your vet about your horse's dietary changes. You may need to remove or decrease her grain supplement, or feed her more frequently throughout the day so that her stomach doesn't sit empty for long periods of time, thus allowing acid to accumulate.

Tip

  • Ulcer treatment must include management changes. Increase your horse's turn-out, grazing time or forage amount, particularly high-quality alfalfa.

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