15 April 2010

Gastric ulcers and horse behaviour

Emma Hardy, PhD
Freedom Health LLC

I’ve been asked by Steve to contribute to his Blog, to talk a little about equine digestive problems and some of the issues we might just be missing in our horses.

I wonder how many of you have come across a sign or symptom of a digestive issue and missed it? It’s easily done, particularly when we frequently impart human characteristics on our horses such as being naughty, lazy or silly. Sometimes when we look a little harder at our horse’s behaviour it may be that the root cause may lie a little deeper in the functioning of their digestive system.

All of the following can be signs of a digestive imbalance – some obvious and some less so;

Poor Performance: lethargic, nervous, withdrawn, “poor doer”
Hard to Train: lacks focus or attention, objects, unresponsive, nervous, fizzy or hard to control
Stable Vices: cribbing, weaving, kicking, biting
Poor Condition: hard to maintain weight, lack of muscle development, rough
Poor appetite: diarrhoea, wind or bloating, poor food
absorption (in manure).
Clinical Signs: sub-clinical anaemia, low-grade or frequent colic, tying up.

As I am sure we all know the horse is a nomadic trickle feeder, designed to walk and graze for up to 19 hours a day on small but constant intake of structural carbohydrates (grass). This lifestyle (as long as there weren’t anything nearby which thought the horse could be a tasty dinner) was also relatively low stress. Now, how does this differ from modern feeding and lifestyle? We feed less structural carbohydrates (grass/hay), more non-structural carbohydrates (sugars and starches), stable them, intermittently feed them, travel, compete and train them. So even though all this has changed, there is one aspect within all of this which hasn’t changed; The Equine Digestive System.

One of the problems which affect a high percentage of horses is gastric ulceration. Did you know that up to 97% of racehorses are diagnosed with them, and even as many as one in ten leisure horses. Surprisingly, it’s recently come to light that 65-75% of brood mares kept at grass will have gastric ulcers too!

The predominant method for diagnosing gastric ulceration is by gastro scope. This involves visualising the stomach using a 3m long tube with a camera attached. However, for this to be effective the stomach must be empty and so necessitates a period of 12 hr fasting prior to scoping. It has been long known that an empty stomach contributes to the development of ulcers; however it was previously thought that this length of time would be safe. Recent research in the States has shown that this preconception is wrong, and worryingly changes to the stomach lining can actually start to occur in as little as 4 hrs of fasting, with the development of grade one ulcers occurring in less than 12 hrs.

Interestingly, the little known condition of hindgut ulceration is frequently missed or under-diagnosed, mainly due (until now) to a lack of diagnostic methods. When you consider that the hindgut makes up more than 65% of the total digestive tract, the effect on the horse when this isn’t working properly can be harmful, if not in some cases fatal. Now with a simple non-invasive test kit (administered by a vet) using a small amount of fresh manure it is possible to not only diagnose a digestive problem but to also identify the source of the problem whether it be foregut or hindgut.

You could be forgiven for thinking that gastric and hindgut ulceration is much of a muchness but this is not always the case. We know a lot of about gastric ulceration, it causes, treatments and prevention however when it comes to hindgut ulceration we are still learning. What we do know is that it occurs almost as frequently as gastric ulceration, and some treatments for gastric ulceration are not only useless in the hindgut but can actually induce or exacerbate hindgut ulceration!

Symptoms can also differ. For example, girthyness is all too frequently attributed to stomach problems but just by taking a look at the equine digestive anatomy, we can see that girthing would likely compress the large colon. This may then produce a dislike to girthing should there be existing discomfort in the hindgut.

Along with ulceration, colic, starch induced laminitis and other digestive problems, are often met with a cycle of diagnose and treat, and hopefully prevent. However, wouldn’t it be better for us and our horses if we can bypass these first two and just prevent?? In circumstances where conditions are not ideal for optimum health (which applies to the vast majority of horses) we need to support the horses digestive system in as natural a way as possible. This enables it to function normally which ultimately results in a happier, healthier horse.

To find out more about equine digestion please visit www.succeeddcp.com to find out more about the test kit please visit www.succeedfbt.com or contact me at ehardy@freedomhealthllc.com

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