Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Getting To Grips With Ulcers

 Although originally associated predominantly with racehorses, ulcers have become increasingly recognised in sport and leisure horses also (11% of leisure horse owners mentioned Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome in the 2015 National Equine Health Survey.) First of all you need to get your head around your horses’ digestive system. The stomach can be split in two, the region food first enters is the non glandular section, not protected by a mucous layer. Below is the glandular section, where hydrochloric acid is produced and is consequently protected by a mucous layer. Ulcers occur as a result of prolonged exposure of the stomach lining to gastric juices and disruption to mucus production, causing erosion and ulceration, more often in the non glandular unprotected region. In the wild, horses would roam continually on pasture, eating little and often. To support this behaviour, the digestive system evolved to produce gastric acid continually throughout the day, breaking down forage. It is important to remember however as the horse continually chews, saliva containing bicarbonate is produced, acting as a buffer to the gastric acid. In their domesticated environment however, your four legged friends may not always have the opportunity to utilise these natural adaptions.

There are various factors that are believed to be connected with ulcer occurrence. Firstly reduced access to forage, which means acid is allowed to build up, teamed with a lack of chewing, so limited saliva is available to buffer this. High cereal starch diets can encourage rapid microbial fermentation leading to excess acid. Stressful situations including travel and competitions can cause disruptions to the mucus lining the stomach, reducing its acid defence. Irregular feeding patterns which may mean horses are without feed for long periods. Finally gastric splashing, which involves acid from the bottom of the stomach splashing up to the non glandular region, which can occur especially when horses are galloping regularly on an empty stomach.

If you suspect your horse has ulcers, the vet must be contacted and alongside treatment there are steps you can take from a nutritional point of view. Access to forage is essential and should not be restricted to less than 1.5% of bodyweight per day. Avoid your horse standing for long periods of time without forage, allowing pasture turn out wherever possible. Straw should not be used as the sole forage supply, as it is abrasive, has low buffering capacity and does not form an effective fibre mat in the bottom of the stomach to help prevent splashing. If possible, provide forage whilst travelling and before exercise in small holed haynets if required, to try to slow your horse down.

Regarding hard feed, starch intake should be restricted to less than 1g per kilogram bodyweight per meal, so look for feed containing less than 20% starch or less than 15% in low energy/calorie feeds. Feed little and often, adding alfalfa to compounds to lengthen eating time. Due to the high protein and calcium content, alfalfa is also useful for its buffering capacity against acid. If your horse needs help gaining weight, consider using feeds higher in oil rather than traditional conditioning feeds with high starch levels, alternatively pure oil can be added, however speak to a nutritionist for advice on this to ensure the diet remains balanced.  Water should be available at all times to encourage saliva production and flow and if your horse is sweating regularly and you need to supplement with electrolytes, avoid using pastes. Always provide a balanced diet, offering either the recommend amount of feed, or a balancer. Finally a supplement may be considered, however it is important to remember these cannot replace the need for veterinary treatment.

Should ulcers become a problem for your beloved friend, do not be at a loss, with appropriate treatment and by putting the above tips in to practise, hopefully they will be back to their old selves in no time.

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