A Contributor to Stomach Ulcers in Horses

A Lesser Known Significant Contributor to Equine Gastric Ulcers

Endoscopic studies of horses have revealed up to 90% of racehorses and up to 60% of performance horses suffer from equine gastric ulcers. I don’t know about you, but that’s a shocking statistic! However, it’s not only our elite equine athletes that are at risk.

Stomach ulcers may also occur in up to 50% of foals and yearlings, and similar numbers of show, sport, and pleasure horses may encounter stomach ulcers at some point in their lives. 

Studies show that when any intense training and competition regime is introduced, equine gastric ulcers spike. According to a Consensus Statement released by researchers at the European College of Equine Internal Medicine in 2015:

  • Approximately 37% of untrained Thoroughbreds have stomach ulcers, but this skyrockets to between 80-100% within 2-3 months of training;
  • Around 44% of untrained Standardbreds have stomach ulcers, which jumps to 87% during training and racing;
  • Nearly half (48%) of endurance horses have ulcers, which escalates to between 66-93% during the competition season; 
  • Up to 58% of show, sport, and pleasure horses have stomach ulcers at any time;
  • Only 11% of horses kept at home that rarely competes have stomach ulcers.
There’s something seriously wrong with this picture… Why do so many of our horses suffer from equine gastric ulcers and how can we change this reality for them? 

Stomach Ulcers in Horses

To understand stomach ulcers in horses, we must first understand the anatomy of the stomach and the processes that take place inside. Unlike humans, horses secrete gastric acid continuously, even when not eating. This unique digestive design is one part of the problem.

The horse’s stomach can be divided into two distinct regions, the upper squamous region and the lower glandular region, which is similar to the human stomach. A gastric ulcer is a lesion that appears in the horse’s stomach. They are known to affect both areas. 

The bottom portion of the stomach, the lower glandular region, is better protected against the secretion of gastric acid as it also produces mucus and bicarbonate that work together as a buffer to protect the glandular mucosa. 

Equine gastric ulcers most often affect the top portion of the horse’s stomach, the upper squamous region, where the lining is thin and there are minimal defenses against gastric acid. Within hours, ulceration may start eroding the exposed squamous mucosa. 

Signs of Ulcers in Horses

There are a number of factors that are implicated in the formation of gastric ulcers. Diet and feeding practices are most recognized, but stress, both in the environment and on behavior, and the over-use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are also common causes.

The signs of equine gastric ulcers are subtle. Most horses won’t show outward clinical signs beyond one or more of the following:

  • Low-grade colic
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased performance
  • Lack of energy or stamina
  • Reluctance or resistance to training
  • Weight loss and decline in body condition
  • Dullness, irritability, and other changes in attitude
  • Behaviors that indicate discomfort, such as pawing and lying down

Oxidative Stress and Horse Stomach Problems

Much attention has been given to the role of diet and feeding practices in the development of gastric ulcers and other horse stomach problems.
It is well known that restricting eating to one or two high-concentrate grain feeds per day and limiting roughage or access to pasture – a common practice in the management of racing and performance horses – is linked to the increased rate of stomach ulcers.

Lesser-known factors include a stressful environment, which leads to physical and behavioral stress, and oxidative stress, which has been found to be a precursor to and a result of the traditional veterinary treatment of equine gastric ulcers.

Read that again: oxidative stress has been found to both cause and result from ulcers!

A recent study published in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, which investigated the contribution of specific and non-specific biomarkers in the diagnosis of equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS), found that oxidative stress is evident in horses with EGUS

They compared 30 horses diagnosed with gastroscopic EGUS with 15 clinically healthy horses and found biomarkers of oxidative stress in horses with EGUS, detected by higher levels of malondialdehyde (MDA) and decreased serum levels of total antioxidant capacity (TAC), superoxide dismutase (SOD), glutathione (GSH) and nitric oxide (NO).
Another study conducted by researchers in Colombia on the orally administered phenylbutazone (PBZ), an NSAID commonly used in the treatment of equine gastric ulcers, identified the drug actually causes oxidative stress in the equine gastric mucosa, further contributing to the problem.   

While the side effects of PBZ on the horse’s gastrointestinal tract are well known, the researchers set out to evaluate the effect of PBZ on certain antioxidant-oxidant parameters. 

They discovered PBZ induces oxidative stress in the gastric glandular mucosa of horses by changing the antioxidant-oxidant balance of this surface. Their results showed a decrease in antioxidant variables and an increase in oxidant variables, upsetting the health equilibrium.  

When oxidants and antioxidants remain out of balance, it is impossible for your horse to regain a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Nrf2 activation assists your horse in restoring the balance of oxidants and antioxidants within the body, the key to overall health, performance, and vitality.

If you're looking to transform the quality of health and longevity for your horse it's time to get to the root of disease! Click here and get connected with one of our Core Wellness Coaches today.

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