Photo Courtesy of Ross Hecox
This online article is a supplement to “The Secret Inside Alfalfa,” a health column that appeared in the July 2009 issue of Western Horseman.
Veterinarian John Marcotte used to think ulcers were primarily a problem with racehorses. But after performing hundreds of endoscopies in the past several years, Marcotte has come to realize that ulcers are “kind of a problem across the board with youngsters in training.”
Often the challenge with diagnosing ulcers, or Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome, is spotting the symptoms, which are non-specific to the condition. For example, many of the symptoms, which include a substantial decrease in performance, sour attitude, poor hair coat, mild colic, going off feed, losing weight, and grinding teeth, can also be signs of another problem. Adding to the challenge is the fact that not all horses with ulcers show symptoms.
It’s generally assumed that any horses in high stress situations are at risk. So how do you protect your horse?
Allow continual grazing.
“The proper design of a herbivore is they have a large stomach because they need to eat a large volume of food to maintain their body weight,” Marcotte says. “For a herbivore, horses have a very small stomach, so their stomach contents turn over pretty rapidly to maintain their energy intake.” Continual access to roughage allows the horse to keep something in his stomach at all times, which helps balance the pH.
Add more alfalfa.
“Alfalfa is better than grass hay because it has a higher calcium concentration,” Marcotte says. Recent studies have shown that calcium helps buffer the stomach, causing an effect similar to Tums or Maalox.
Veterinarians and researchers haven’t yet pinpointed exactly how stress and ulcers correlate, but stress is generally considered a factor when it comes to ulcers. Which is why the treatment for ulcers often includes several weeks or months of turnout to help reduce stress (and allow continual grazing). Giving your horse adequate time with his pasture buddies every day can help combat the stress he may face in training.
Consider medicinal precautions.
After treating a client’s horse for Grade 3 ulcers, Marcotte advised owner Katie Hartness to start administering UlcerGard several days before an event and continue until a few days after to give her gelding extra protection. UlcerGard contains the active ingredient omeprazole, which is a proton pump inhibitor. PPIs block the enzyme in the stomach that produces acid, which helps maintain a balanced pH.
However, owners who suspect their horses have ulcers should contact their veterinarians before making any changes. Severe ulcers must be treated before management practices are effective, Marcotte says. The best way to diagnose an ulcer is with an endoscopy, a procedure that places a camera down the horse’s nose and into the stomach, allowing a veterinarian to view and evaluate the stomach lining. Ulcers are rated by severity on a five-part grading scale:
• Grade 0—No ulcers or erosion
• Grade 1—No ulcers, but evidence of erosion in the stomach lining
• Grade 2—Small ulcers
• Grade 3—Larger or multi-focal ulcers with extensive erosion and sloughing
• Grade 4—Extensive ulcers with deep, sub-mucosal penetration
The only FDA-approved treatment currently available is GastroGard, a prescription-strength dosage of omeprazole.
John Marcotte, DVM, is based in Vinita, Oklahoma, and has been practicing veterinary medicine for 15 years. Send comments on this article to [email protected].