Saturday, March 18, 2017

Your horse probably has ulcers. Here's what to do.

The majority of domestic horses have stomach ulcers. So odds are good that your horse does, too. It’s not a big mystery as to why this happens and it is avoidable.

The stats.  There are two common stats you see: 60% of performance horses and 90% of race horses have ulcers. A veterinary friend of mine refers to university studies concluding that 80% of all adult domestic horses have ulcers. Even foals can have ulcers. Often there are no external signs that a horse has ulcers and the only way to be certain is to look at the stomach lining using endoscopy. Before you can deal with your horse's ulcers, you need to understand why they happen. 

Natural eating. Horses are grazing animals. They are designed to take in small amounts of forage continually and their stomachs generate gastric acid continually to initiate digestion. Acid is generated in the lower part of the stomach, which has a glandular lining tough enough to withstand direct contact with acid. Forage in the stomach mats up and absorbs acid. Saliva generated by chewing coats the stomach wall and has a buffering effect on the acid, as does the calcium present in the forage. As long as a horse is grazing, he’s okay.

Enter domestication. Many things about the horse’s natural life are changed by living with humans: his freedom of movement, his social life, his eating patterns. Feeding twice a day has become a tradition, along with the use of simple carbohydrates in the form of grain to provide energy.

The empty stomach. The twice-a-day feeding practice results in long periods – hours at a time – when the horse’s stomach is empty. This is when ulcers get started. Acid is still being generated but there is nothing in the stomach to absorb or buffer it. The pH of the stomach becomes very acidic. When the horse moves around, the acid accumulating in the lower stomach splashes onto the wall of the upper stomach, which has a different, more fragile lining. The chemical burns that result are ulcers. In extreme cases, the gastric acid can score tracks in the stomach lining as it runs down the wall. The endoscopic image above shows this clearly.

Outward signs of ulcers. What’s incredible is that horses can cope with ulcers at all. But they do and we may not even know ulcers are present until there is some outward change in behavior. Horses may show signs of pain. They may stop eating and drinking. They may not give their all in performance. These outward signs often become visible when the horse is put in stressful situations.

The vicious cycle. Stress sets in motion a vicious cycle the horse can’t handle.  Stress causes an increase in production of gastric acid and a lessened desire to eat and drink. Without food coming into the stomach, the increased flow of acid results in increased burning of the upper stomach wall. The discomfort this burning produces causes more stress and the cycle continues.

What to do. If your horse has been diagnosed with ulcers, your vet may prescribe omeprazole to inhibit production of acid.  Non-prescription natural products are also available that help by balancing stomach pH.  These can provide relief from the discomfort of ulcers and set up the conditions under which damaged tissue can begin to heal. The same medications can be used in lower doses as a preventive strategy. However, a more natural diet is the real solution. The key thing is to feed more forage more often. The ideal is full-time pasture turnout. The next best thing is free choice hay. After that, a slow hay feeder is a good choice. At the very least, you need to give your horse an additional forage feeding in the middle of the day. Note that there are challenges with some of these strategies. For example, you have to be careful with full-time pasture turnout during periods of warm days and cool nights. It’s also possible that your horse will become obese if allowed to eat all the time. The bottom line is that managing your horse’s diet requires paying attention and making adjustments as needed.

The rest of his diet. Forage must be the basis of the diet. But no forage contains all the vitamins and minerals a horse needs, so you'll need a supplement. Look for low-starch mixes. Avoid grain entirely. Overuse of grain sets the horse up for many problems, including ulcers. Modern low-starch mixes, whether vitamin/mineral supplements or complete fortified feeds, have all the advantages of grain and none of the dangers.

Final thoughts. We can’t make the lives of our domestic horses exactly like those of their wild cousins and we wouldn’t want to. Life in the wild is brutal. However, we can commit to making the way we feed our horses as natural as possible. Even small changes, like adding a third forage feeding per day or hanging a hay bag in addition to the flakes put out at meal time will help. We owe it to our horses to make the effort. Fortunately, it's easy to learn about this aspect of horse care. There are many great educational resources online. 

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