Gastric Ulcers

You may not think that your horse has gastric (stomach) ulcers but research shows that up to 93% of thoroughbred racehorses in training have gastric ulceration.

The percentage of affected horses kept at pasture is also very high.  Recent data also indicates that poor athletic performance is a key manifestation of the disease.

What Causes Gastric Ulcers?

Intense exercise and the stress associated with an unnatural diet and living conditions are contributing factors, however the most critical issue is acid sitting in an empty stomach. This acid erodes the stomach lining causing ulceration. Horses have evolved to graze food all day so their stomach secretes acid 24 hours a day. Stabled horses are usually fed high energy grain meals twice daily. Often the meal is consumed relatively quickly so without unlimited access to hay/forage between meals, they may go for hours without any food in the stomach to neutralise the acid.

What Are The Signs Of The Disease?

Up to 50% of horses with ulcers do not show any outward signs of gastrointestinal disease. However, those horses that do have symptoms may :

  • have a reduced appetite or take longer than usual to eat their feed
  • preferentially eat hay and leave their grain meal
  • have a dry, dull coat
  • have difficultly in achieving or maintaining body condition
  • display behavioural vices such as crib-biting and wind-sucking
  • show mild signs of colic (such as stretching as if to urinate or pawing)
  • poor or reduced performance

How Are Gastric Ulcers Diagnosed?

Gastroscopy (“stomach scoping”) is the only definitive diagnosis. This procedure involves passing a 3 meter fibre-optic scope (camera) into the horses stomach to visualise the ulcers. Gastric ulcers cannot be diagnosed with a blood test. If you suspect your horse has ulcers the positive response to treatment is also a good indicator that the horse has had the disease.

What Is The Treatment?

Treatment is aimed at reducing the amount of acid in the stomach to allow the lining of the stomach to heal. This is achieved with the use of effective medications and good feeding practices. Many formulations claim to have an ‘antacid’ effect, however only ranitidine and omeprazole (contained in Ulcerguard/Gastrozol/Omoguard) have been proven to treat and prevent gastric ulcers. It is important to continue treatment while in training at a maintenance dose to prevent recurrence.