Horse Disease Focus - Ulcers
Can horses get stomach ulcers?
The answer is...yes. Horses get stomach ulcers fairly commonly, but they often go undiagnosed or are mistaken for other problems, such as back pain or heat-related issues in mares.
In fact, ulcers may be present in almost 50% of foals and a third of adults (mostly stalled horses). They are more common in horses that are actively competing or showing, with racehorses having the highest rates.
The symptoms are slightly different in foals (which are very prone to ulcers), than in adults. One common manifestation of ulcers is colic, which is generally mild and, in foals, may be intermittent, occurring only after nursing.
Ulcers can also cause poor appetite, which may result in weight loss.
In foals, they can also cause teeth grinding, excessive salivation and diarrhea. A foal with ulcers may lie on its back for extended periods - this is not normal horse behavior.
Adults with ulcers often show a lower quality hair coat. They may also be grumpy or grouchy. Ulcers definitely cause a reduction in performance. Horses with ulcers lie down more than normal and may lie down in odd positions or attitudes.
Definitive diagnosis requires an endoscope of the stomach. In some cases, when the symptoms are mild, the vet may go for diagnosis by treatment - that is, he may give the horse ulcer medication and see if it improves.
Treatment generally consists of an antibiotic to kill bacteria in the stomach and H2 blockers, that temporarily reduce stomach acid production and allow the stomach to heal.
In most cases, horses do not need to be rested while they are being treated, although if the horse has lost significant weight or is showing bad attitude, it might be a good idea to stop working the horse. The horse should not be confined to a stall - in fact, as much turnout as possible is a good idea.
Foals often recover in a few days without treatment, as their stomachs are much more resilient. Foals are only treated if they seem to be particularly miserable.
In horses, there is strong evidence that ulcers are caused by stress. In fact, the section of the horse population most prone to developing ulcers is racehorses. High level show horses are also prone to them.
Stress is not the only factor. Excessive time spent stalled, without being provided with roughage free choice, can also contribute to ulcers. So can long periods of time confined to a horse trailer (or a plane).
The first step to preventing ulcers is to turn the horse out as much as possible. The only time a horse should not be turned out or given free choice hay is if the animal is prone to founder and needs to be on a restricted diet. In this case, especially if the horse is competing, it might pay to give preventive medication, which could also be recommended if a horse has had more than one bout of ulcers. (Some horses do seem to be more prone to them than others).
Apple cider vinegar added to the feed has been observed to reduce the risk of ulcers and has no harmful side effects - there's really no reason not to give it to everything in the barn and many horses like the taste. However, in the case of animals that cannot be fed free choice or those known to be prone to ulcers, a maintenance dose of ulcer medication might be a good idea.