Stomach Ulcers and Gastroscopy
Mike Fitzgerald BVSc.
Stomach ulcers (gastric ulcers) are a hot topic! Stomach ulceration is a somewhat confusing syndrome – the syndrome can have a multitude of clinical signs, ranging from very subtle performance issues, or picky eating, to weight loss and colic. There is also a multitude of products on the market which claim to help with ulcers, not all being equal. The recent advancement and availability of gastroscopy (stomach scoping) has moved the diagnosis from a guessing game, to black and white.
How do you know if your horse or pony has stomach ulcers?
Until recently, the only way we could diagnose ulcers was on behavioural and physical signs – this includes an array of symptoms that can be associated with ulcers, including; poor coat, difficulty gaining weight, recurrent colic, temperament or behavioural changes, reduced appetite, picky eating, girthiness, sensitivity around the abdomen, poor performance, crib biting, etc.
This is all and well, as all of the above can be caused by ulcers; however recent studies have shown the accuracy of these ‘classic symptoms’ to be poor in the diagnosis of ulcers. Tolerance and outward signs of gastric ulcers will vary immensely between horses – some with mild ulcers may show obvious outward signs, whereas other stoic horses (or “silent sufferers”) may only show mild and transient symptoms (e.g. nervousness, picky eating), despite having severe ulcers.
Some practitioners use the presence of reactive acupuncture points to diagnose ulcers. While this can raise suspicions of their presence, it is nonspecific and has not been confirmed as an accurate or valid diagnostic test for ulcers.
Gastroscopy – the use of a 3 metre endoscope to directly visualise the stomach lining, is the only definitive and accurate method to assess the presence and importantly, the severity, of gastric ulcers.
How common are ulcers?
The prevalence of ulcers varies with breed, the type of exercise the horse does, and how they are managed. In thoroughbred racehorses, it is reported that 80-100% of horses in training and 37% of spelled horses are affected. Rates of 54% in pleasure horses, 93% in endurance, and 64% in sport horses, have been reported in the literature. Ponies that are on feed restriction for weight loss are at a high risk if they are not able to graze continuously.
What causes ulcers?
The horse’s stomach is divided into two main areas, each with a different lining (mucosa). The top part, called the squamous or non-glandular portion, has a lining similar to skin, lacking adequate defence against stomach acid. The bottom section is the glandular area, which is responsible for acid secretion. It secretes a thick layer of mucous, as well as bicarbonate to buffer acid, and protect its lining.
Gastric ulceration in horses can be divided into two kinds, squamous ulceration (equine squamous gastric disease - ESGD) and ulceration of the glandular region (equine glandular gastric disease - EGGD). ESGD is the ‘classic’ stomach ulcers we know the most about, whereas EGGD is a relatively new finding. It appears to be more prevalent in NZ compared to other countries, and can be more difficult to treat. It’s causes are less well understood, but are assumed to be similar to ESGD.
Horses, unlike humans, secrete gastric acid continuously. The horse evolved to graze high fibre feed for around 18 hours per day - when horses have continuous access to feed, particularly roughage, the presence of feed in the stomach buffers the acid, and acts as a mat, protecting the vulnerable squamous portion. Chewing causes saliva to be produced -this is high in bicarbonate which also helps to neutralise acid. Exposure to acid, or acid splashing, is thought to be the cause of ulcers in the squamous part of the stomach. Also, certain feeds are broken down into acidic by-products. High starch feeds (grains) create more acidic conditions, than roughage or fat.
When horses exercise, the pressure in the stomach increases, and causes acid to splash onto the squamous mucosa, causing damage. The more strenuous the exercise, the more pronounced this effect is. Added to this, is the fact that many horses have traditionally been held off feed before exercise, so there is more acid, and less feed and saliva to neutralize it. Even when horses aren’t exercising, periods of feed restriction put them at high risk of ulcers.
The type of diet can contribute to ulcer risk. High starch, grain diets increase acid production and can directly injure cells in the squamous part of the stomach, as well as being lower in fibre and overall bulk. Higher fibre feeds are eaten more slowly, and form a ‘mat’ that sits on the acid to reduce splashing. Lucerne is a particularly good feed because the high calcium content assists in buffering the acid.
Any factors that increase stress levels, for example, transport, box confinement, and competition, increase the likelihood of ulcers developing.
Gastroscopy for ulcer diagnosis
Gastroscopy is the only way to conclusively diagnose ulcers, and tell how severe they are. This enables an instant diagnosis, compared with a treatment trial. Importantly, it guides the duration of treatment needed to get a complete resolution. It also allows for the diagnosis of glandular (pyloric) ulceration, which requires an extended course of treatment and the addition of another medication. Gastroscopy can be very useful in differentiating between pain and true behavioural issues – for those cases that are not obviously clear cut.
Treatment of ulcers
It has been shown that turnout alone is poor at resolving gastric ulcers. I scoped a horse late last year that had been turned out for 8 months, due to rearing and behavioural issues – he still had severe ulcers present.
There are a huge number of products and supplements available that claim to heal or prevent stomach ulcers – however most of these products are lacking any robust scientific trials to support their claims. Currently, the only treatment with widespread scientific validation is the suppression of stomach acid, using omeprazole.
The duration of treatment required varies depending on the gastroscopy findings, but at least 30 days at the full dose of omeprazole is required. Some glandular ulcers may take 6 months of treatment to fully resolve.
Once a treatment course is finished, prevention of recurrence is important. There is an array of management and feeding changes that can be implemented to limit the chance of recurrence – that is another article in itself!
We are now fortunate to have the ability to perform gastroscopy. We have access to a scope that we can hire periodically and we performed 3 days of scoping late last year which was very well received, with some great cases and good outcomes. We plan to organise scoping clinics once every couple of months – please contact your local clinic with any questions or enquiries!!
Read more >Friday 30th of November 2018:
Read more >Friday 28th of September 2018: When a flea bites, its saliva causes the dog to itch. Fleas not only cause skin problems for dogs and us but can also cause other disease such as anaemia, flea allergy dermatitis and tapeworms.
Read more >Friday 28th of September 2018: Dogs, like us, have two sets of teeth during their lives. The deciduous (baby) teeth appear shortly after birth and are replaced by the permanents at around four to six months of age. Deciduous teeth cause few problems except where they are retained beyond about eight months of age. If this occurs, displacement of the erupting permanents may result.
Read more >Friday 28th of September 2018: During the spring and summer months we see high numbers of dogs with itchy skin.In the past, the only way to manage atopy (itchy skin) was through medications such as steroids and antihistamines but Royal Canin nutritionists and veterinarians have developed a new Prescription Diet specially formulated to help manage environmental sensitivities in dogs.
Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: When a flea bites, its saliva causes the dog to itch. The adult fleas you see on your dog only represent 5% of the whole flea population. Flea problems can appear to come and go. This is because the immature stages of the flea (eggs, pupae) wait in the environment for the right conditions (Warmth, humidity and stimulation) When this happens they tend to hatch all at once onto the unsuspecting animal.
Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: Ticks live in areas of long grass and dense shrubs. They wait for animals to come along, and then grab onto their fur. Once on the animal, they find areas of thin skin and attach with cement-like saliva to feed on blood.
Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: A break in the toe nail or dewclaw causes a cracked nail with an exposed nail bed. This can be extremely painful. If left untreated, nail infections can spread up to the joint of the toe and can lead to irreparable damage such that the toe itself has to be amputated.
Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: Constipation is an obstruction of the colon with difficulty to pass faeces or the inability to defaecate at all. Clinical signs are:
- Straining to defaecate
- Defaecating small amounts of dry hard firm stool
- Straining with small amounts of liquid stool
- Occasional vomiting
- Not wanting to eat
- Depression / Lethargy
Read more >Thursday 30th of August 2018: Heat stroke can be an extremely deadly emergency.
We see it mainly in summer but it can occur at any time.
During hot summer days, start work early if you can. Try to avoid the main hottest parts of the day. If you have large work days, alternate your team, so dogs get a good chance to rest.
Read more >Friday 27th of July 2018:
Read more >Friday 27th of July 2018: With the equestrian season kicking off in most disciplines, Spring is a good time for your horse to have its annual âwarrant of fitnessâ.
Read more >Wednesday 25th of July 2018: We have had a couple of interesting cases over the last few months where our Vets have been able to use the endoscope to help diagnose and address issues.
The endoscope is a flexible camera/video /light source that we can use to help investigate respiratory tract in horses as they allow us to gain access visually to some of the nooks and crannyâs that make up a horses upper and lower respiratory tract.
Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018: Arthritis will be in almost all our working dogs by the age of 5. The severity depends on breeding and size of the breed, previous injuries, nutrition and how well they have been looked after.
Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018: To get the most out of your team, ensure you take measures to keep them comfortable.
Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018: Rat bait (rodenticide) poisoning is the most common poisoning we see in the clinic. It generally affects dogs as they are more readily ruled by their stomachs! Rat baits work by preventing the production of clotting factors (anticoagulants). This lack of clotting factors causes prolonged and uncontrolled bleeding which is often fatal if untreated.
Read more >Thursday 29th of March 2018:
Read more >Thursday 8th of March 2018: The transportation of horse to events in NZ [such as HOY] is commonplace but in saying that it needs to be managed to maximise athletic performance, and minimise the risk of any negative impact on horse health. After all it is a long expensive and disappointing trip to an event to have your horse perform below their best.
Road transport can be detrimental to horse's lungs, muscles, gut function and weight
Read more >Thursday 8th of March 2018: Alfie is a 22 year old Kaimanawa gelding who had the misfortune of getting the wrong end of a stick during a wind-storm.
He presented with acute right eye pain â eyelids tightly closed with profuse tearing.
Read more >Friday 2nd of March 2018: