You've read the ads, seen the endoscope studies results and heard the talk: Gastric ulcers are incredibly common in domesticated horses. The incidence is higher in heavily stressed horses, like racehorses and endurance horses, but ulcers are being found in quiet horses that seem to have a plain, ordinary, easy life, too.
If your horse doesn't quite seem like himself at times, not colicky, but definitely somehow uncomfortable, he may be battling an ulcer. Or maybe he doesn't eat with the enthusiasm he used to have, or just lacks the "spirit" he used to have. You've ruled out other possibilities and are left to face the fact that you may well be seeing the symptoms of a chronic gastro-intestinal (GI)-related problem, such as an ulcer.
Risk factors for developing ulcers include:
• Stall confinement.
• Sporadic feeding rather than constant access to grass.
• Exercise faster than a walk. (This causes enough rise in abdominal pressure to cause some acid movement into the unprotected areas of the stomach. The faster the horse moves, the more pressure and back wash of acid.)
• Feeding processed feeds rather than whole grains.
• Prolonged fasting (e.g. long trips, long period of time between last feed of the day and the morning feed).
• Any problem elsewhere in the gastrointestinal tract.
• Use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids.
The only way to definitively diagnose gastric ulcers is to examine the stomach directly with an endoscope at a veterinary clinic or do a sucrose-absorption test (see page 13). However, most horses are "diagnosed" by symptoms only.
Signs most suggestive of gastric ulcer include:
• Grinding of the teeth.
• Belching noises.
• Slow eating, often walking away without finishing meals all at once.
• Picky appetite that includes the horse refusing foods or supplements that were consumed readily before.
These symptoms aren't diagnostic of ulcers, but they do suggest discomfort associated with the upper GI tract/stomach. Less-specific signs frequently attributed to ulcers are:
• Sour, sulky attitude.
• Poor coat.
• Weight loss.
• Poor performance.
• Sensitivity to touch around the horse's lower belly/sternum area.
Since the signs and symptoms are nonspecific-and overlap quite a bit with other causes of low-grade intestinal-tract discomfort and with pain from any cause-ulcers may be blamed when another problem is actually the cause. It's important to involve your veterinarian in the diagnosis and treatment.
While horses can develop some degree of gastric ulceration easily and under a wide variety of conditions, ulcers can and do heal spontaneously. On a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being only obvious reddening of the stomach lining and 3 is a deep ulcer, a horse with a grade 3 ulcer is more likely to actually have symptoms as a result and definitely requires treatment, while a grade 1 stomach irritation could be symptom-free and resolve on its own.