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Gut Check: Equine Gastric Ulcer Prevention

To prevent gastric ulcers, you must first understand them

Nimble, brawny and tenacious, thoroughbreds are genetic running machines, just as ‘scopey’ sport horses are perfectly suited for the gymnastics of dressage and jumping. The agility and willingness of the quarter horse makes them obvious candidates for the ranch, while docile drafts are one of nature’s most able-bodied co-workers.

Yes, horses are indeed bred for many purposes…but their guts are made for just one: grazing.

It is estimated that as many as 60% of all show horses are affected by gastric ulcers. As the intensity of the sport increases, so too does the prevalence of Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (as high as 75%-90% of racehorses and top-level sport horses are impacted by EGUS).

Why?

Think of it as one of the costs associated with domestication. As certain physical and mental traits have evolved, the equine digestive system is forever locked in free-roaming mode. Horses have relatively small stomachs continuously producing high volumes of acid. This is perfect for the free-range forager, but for the regimented athlete, it’s an almost unavoidable issue. (Research has found that an average horse can produce up to 16 gallons of acidic fluid every 24 hours.)

Most competition horses are fed a couple meals each day, heavy on energy-supplying grains. In the meantime, all this naturally produced acid builds, and builds and builds, splashing all around the stomach during exercise and into places unequipped for defense, leading to erosion of the stomach lining.

On top of that, competition horses are often hauled from show ground to show ground, and while they might all look and feel the same to you after a while, for the horse each venue is an entirely new and foreign environment. And as we all know, any deviation of the daily routine for these flighty creatures of habit causes stress.

Acid build-up, increased physical and mental stress, why that’s a recipe for gastric ulcers.

So how do you ensure your horses beat the odds and stay ulcer free?

You have two options: turn them loose, back into the wild where they can put their flat work and two-hour-a-day turnout to the test against nature’s unforgiving whims. Or, follow the guidelines laid out by the AAEP:

1. Allow free-choice access to grass or hay.

2. If the horse must be stalled, arrange for the horse to see the horses he socializes with. Consider offering a ball or other object that the horse can enjoy in his stall.

3. Feed the horse more frequently to help buffer the acid in the stomach.

4. Decrease grains that form volatile fatty acids.

5. Medications that decrease acid production are available, but are only necessary in horses showing signs of clinical disease or when the predisposing factors, such as stress, cannot be removed.

In other words, unless you can perfectly mimic a free-range environment and never plan to take your horses to a show, you might be ok here.

For everyone else, preventing (or treating) EGUS should be a major part of your daily program.

What is UlcerGard?

Currently, UlcerGard is the only FDA-approved over-the-counter medication that helps prevent stomach ulcers in horses. The active ingredient in UlcerGard, Omeprazole, inhibits acid production at its source. A daily dose of UlcerGard during times of stress can effectively prevent stomach ulcers in otherwise healthy horses.

In addition to providing UlcerGard during times of stress, you can help reduce the risk of stomach ulcers for your horse by increasing grazing time, providing free access to hay and feeding grain in multiple, small meals. Feeding alfalfa is also recommended for its buffering action. While some nutritional supplements may also support digestive health, make sure they are from a trusted source and are backed by independent research.

How to use UlcerGard…

Give a daily dose of UlcerGard, clearly marked on each tube, on the back of the horse’s tongue or deep in the cheek pouch. If any of the dose is lost or rejected, re-dosing is recommended.

Each tube of UlcerGard contains four daily doses for horses weighing 600 to 1,200 pounds. Two doses can be used for horse weighing more than 1,200 pounds.

Wait, so what’s GastroGard?

While UlcerGard acts a preventative, GastroGard is for treating existing gastric ulcers. They are identical products, the only difference being the dosage and availability: GastroGard requires a prescription.

Clinical Signs of EGUS

Signs commonly associated with EGUS include: a decrease in appetite, changes in eating and drinking habits, weight loss, a negative change in attitude, recurrent mild colic, dull hair coat and unthriftiness, intermittent loose stools or diarrhea, and poor performance.

Foals will grind their teeth and roll up on their backs. Death can occur in foals if the ulcer erodes through the entire wall of the stomach.

The only way to truly affirm EGUS is with an endoscopic examination of the stomach by your veterinarian.

Bottom Line

With so many other things to worry about, gut health might not always be a high-priority issue. But it should be. Gastric ulcers can cause significant discomfort, dramatically impacting performance and potentially triggering significant health issues. Prevention is key, especially among high-risk competition horses.

Limiting stressful situations, more frequent feedings and free-choice access to grass or hay can help reduce risk. This provides a constant supply of feed to neutralize the acid and stimulate saliva production, which is nature’s best antacid. When this is not adequate or possible, a daily dose of Omeprazole is your best line of defense.

All content is for informational purposes only. Contact your local veterinarian if you have any questions regarding the health of your animals.


 

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