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Ulcer Prevention for the Competitive Sport Horse

Today’s competitive sport horses are asked to perform at their absolute best at the most prestigious competitions all over the world. Travel and life at the showgrounds can be extremely stressful for horses. Ulcers can affect any horse, but competitive sport horses with the extra stressors from a life of intensive work and travel are especially prone. Palm Beach Equine Clinic veterinarians want to ensure that your horse remains healthy and ulcer-free. There are many precautions that can be taken to prevent ulcers from developing, but if your horse does develop a problem, Palm Beach Equine Clinic is there to aid in treatment.

Gastric Ulcers and Hindgut Ulcers

There are two different kinds of ulcers – gastric ulcers and hindgut ulcers. The horse can develop one or the other, or both in combination, however gastric ulcers are most common. Gastric ulcers develop in the stomach, which is comprised of two different halves. The lower half of the stomach secretes acid and digestive enzymes to properly digest food. If the acid splashes up to the upper half of the stomach, there is minimal protection and causes painful erosion of the stomach lining.

Increased acidity in the stomach increases the chance of that acid will come in contact with the larger, unprotected portion, resulting in damage to the stomach lining. There are many different factors that can change the environment of the stomach and cause increased acid production, ultimately resulting in ulcers. The most common factors are drastic changes in feeding times or types of feed, undue stress, and corrosive medications.

Ulcer Prevention in Show Horses

For the competitive equine, the stress of traveling and showing, as well as any change in the environment or increased work, can increase the chances of ulcers forming. Abnormal sleep patterns at shows can cause added stress. It is important to ensure that the horse has ample bedding and space to feel comfortable enough to lay down to rest. Joint pain or other physical pain can also cause unnecessary stress to the horse’s system. Joint supplements, routine injections, and alternative therapies such as chiropractic and acupuncture can be used to keep the horse comfortable and stress-free.

Another major cause of gastric ulcers is chronic administration of phenybutazone (bute), banamine, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as these medications can be corrosive to the stomach lining.

Diagnosing Equine Ulcers

Ulcers can be difficult to diagnose as early signs can easily be confused with colic. Many times horses with ulcers show mild, chronic, colic-like symptoms that resolve fairly quickly. Owners and trainers may notice that the horse seems sore after eating, denies feed entirely, or has colic-like symptoms such as upper lip movement, biting at its side, or pawing. If the ulcer is undiagnosed and is given banamine to treat the colic symptoms, ulcers can be exacerbated due to the administration of banamine.

Equine Ulcer Diagnostic Tools

There are several ways to diagnose ulcers. First, if ulcers get severe enough, they can cause the stomach to bleed, and can be tested in a quick blood test to check for a low red blood cell count or anemia. A small amount of dark blood present in the stool can detect bleeding gastic ulcers or the right dorsal colon, but usually it is a microscopic amount and it can be difficult to visualize. A fecal test to test for blood in the stool can be performed but it is not the most specific or reliable method.

The most definitive way to diagnose gastric ulcers is the use of a gastroscope to provide an internal scan. A small camera is inserted down the esophagus and into the stomach, which allows for a clear picture of the separation between the glandular bottom portion and the upper unprotected portion of the stomach. On the gastroscope, ulcers with ranging severity can appear to be a minor red irritation or actual holes, which are depressions of the lining of the stomach. With the gastroscope, you can also visualize the beginning of the small intestine, which is another common area for erosions to occur.

Hindgut ulcers can easily be identified by a non-invasive ultrasound of the colon. With an ultrasound, the veterinarian is able to determine if a specific area of the colon wall is thickened. Thickening of the wall is abnormal and is a primary sign of colonic ulcers. The drugs to treat hind gut ulcers differ from gastric ulcers but the treatment period is still four weeks or more.

Treatment of Equine Ulcers

If ulcers are diagnosed to be present, they are graded as to their location and severity. A treatment plan is determined according to these factors. The gold standard treatment is Omeprazole for four weeks – one tube a day for 28 days. The most common Omeprazole treatment is Gastrogard. Oral supplements, such as calcium, which help to neutralize the stomach acids and act as a buffer to protect the stomach lining, are also sometimes recommended.

If your horse is diagnosed with ulcers, it is important to avoid bute and banamine, if possible. The owner should be careful not to make any significant changes to the horse’s diet. Maintaining a consistent feeding schedule is important to avoid causing any major increases in acid production in the stomach.

Another tip to help keep the pH of the stomach neutral is to add one flake of alfalfa to the horse’s hay per day. It helps to lower the acidity of the stomach. Discuss changes to your horse’s diet with your veterinarian to make sure it will work with your schedule as alfalfa may increase your horse’s energy levels.

Ulcer Prevention

Another way to help prevent ulcers in the future is to prophylactically give Omeprazole a day or two before a stressor. If you know the horse is traveling or going to a show, start administering Omeprazole three to four days prior. Gastric medications can be given every day during the stressor time period, at the show, and then a day or two following the show. It is important to plan ahead and prepare preventative measures that can be very helpful with managing ulcer episodes.

The veterinarians at Palm Beach Equine Clinic are here to help with any concerns for your horse. If you suspect that your horse may have ulcers, or if you want to stay one step ahead and take preventative measures, contact PBEC at 561-793-1599 for more information.

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