Ulcers can develop in the gastrointestinal system for many reasons and in horses of all ages. Today, our San Angelo vets discuss gastric ulcer syndrome in horses, its causes and common signs, and how to treat it.

What are gastric ulcers in horses?

When ulcers are discovered on the stomach lining it is referred to as gastric or stomach ulcers. Horses can commonly experience ulcers, and most will suffer from this condition at some point in their lives with a greater risk for athletic horses due to increased gastric acid production and decreased blood flow to the GI tract caused by excessive exercise.

Horses have smaller stomachs than other animals, so they eat less but more frequently throughout the day. For horses that naturally graze, this also means that their body will produce a steady supply of gastric acid to help with digestion, although the feed and saliva will dilute this acid. In situations where the horse is fed twice a day, such as during boarding, this acid can instead be over-produced and affect other parts of the digestive system, leading to gastric ulcers.

What are the causes of gastric ulcers in horses?

An imbalance between mucosal aggressive and protective factors generally causes Gastric Ulcer Syndrome in horses. Prolonged exposure to hydrochloric acid, pepsin, bile or organic acids may lead to ulcers in the esophagus. When a horse experiences ulcers in this area, it can be compared to Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease Syndrome (GERDS) in humans. 

The length of time that the horse experiences acid exposure will determine the severity of this condition. Ulcers that occur in the glandular mucosa of horses are typically caused by a disruption of blood flow and decreased mucus and bicarbonate secretion.

If a horse has been fasting or gone long without eating, it will be more likely to experience gastric ulcer syndrome, along with foals that nurse or feed infrequently.

Signs of Ulcer in Horses

Most horses with gastric ulcers do not show outward clinical signs and can appear completely healthy. Gastric ulcer syndrome in horses can have various symptoms:

  • Poor appetite
  • Dullness
  • Attitude changes
  • Decreased performance
  • Reluctance to train
  • Poor body condition
  • Poor hair coat
  • Weight loss
  • Low-grade colic
  • Girthiness

Clinical signs of ulcers in foals include intermittent colic (after suckling or eating), frequent resting, reduced nursing, diarrhea, poor appetite, a pot-bellied appearance, grinding of teeth, and excess salivation. Once these symptoms appear in foals the condition is already advanced and should be diagnosed and treated immediately.

Diagnosing Gastric Ulcers in Horses

Rather than attempting to use equine X-rays, a very useful type of equine diagnostic imaging, your vet will use an endoscope to perform a gastroscopy. With gastroscopy, your equine vet will use a thin, flexible tube inserted through your horse's mouth to view the upper digestive tract.

Gastric Ulcer Treatment for Horses

If you have noticed any of the symptoms above in your horse or foal, you should have your horse examined by our San Angelo vets. Our vets can recommend the ideal treatment once your horse has been diagnosed with gastric ulcer syndrome through our equine surgery and diagnostics department.

Various methods have been used to treat and prevent gastric ulcers in horses and foals. Regarding medication, a paste must be administered once daily for 28 days to treat gastric ulcer syndrome in horses. One of the added benefits of this medication is that it can prevent the recurrence of gastric ulcers when administered at a half dose. While horse surgery can be useful for many conditions, this concern is generally treated with medication and not through invasive measures.

Treatment is important as ulcers do not tend to heal on their own, and untreated gastric ulcers can cause serious complications, such as a hole in the stomach lining.

Note: The advice in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding animals or professional advice regarding equine regulations. To diagnose your animal's condition and help navigate rules governing the care and transportation of equine animals, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your horse shows signs of illness or discomfort, please contact Western Veterinary Hospital. Our vets are here to help diagnose and treat horses, from horse X-rays to surgery and more.