What are some of the common signs that your horse is affected by ulcers? If your horse is losing weight, not eating well, or has developed a coarse coat they may be affected by ulcers.

But these are not the only symptoms that you should be on the lookout for. Every horse owner should be aware of these signs because Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome (EGUS) is one of the most common medical conditions in horses.

Researchers estimate that 60-90% of performance horses will develop EGUS at some point. Pleasure horses and foals can also develop ulcers, although the disease is somewhat different.

Domesticated horses are prone to ulcers because of their biology and how we feed and manage them. Horses evolved to spend up to 16 hours a day grazing grass and forages. Their stomach produces acid continuously regardless of whether there is feed in the stomach. [1]

As a horse grazes, a continuous flow of saliva helps to neutralize stomach acid, keeping the pH level at four or greater for most of the day. [1] However, problems can occur when a horse has limited access to forage and this acid attacks the lining of the stomach and gut.

The high grain diets often fed to performance horses lead to the production of volatile fatty acids (VFAs). This can further contribute to ulcer development, as VFAs can damage cells of the stomach. [2]

In addition, stress is a major risk factor for ulcers. Physical and environmental stressors such as intense exercise, stall confinement, and transport stress are common in performance horses and increase the risk of EGUS.

Social stressors, such as changes in the herd group or changes to the environment and routine, can cause stress in the horse.

Signs that your Horse might have Ulcers

Symptoms of EGUS are often subtle and not specific to ulcers. Although most horses show some signs of gastric ulceration, over half of horses with ulcers don’t show any symptoms at all. [4]

With that said, there are a number of specific symptoms that have been directly linked with EGUS. If your horse shows any of the following signs, you should have him or her evaluated by your veterinarian who can perform an endoscopy to look for ulcers in the stomach and small intestine.

1. Poor Appetite

One of the most common signs of ulcers is the reluctance to finish meals or being a “picky eater”. This is likely a direct result of ongoing abdominal discomfort.

Your horse may start eating his grain ration but then back off. He might also show less interest in eating altogether. Some horses may be fussy about eating hay as well as grain or concentrates.

2. Weight Loss

Loss of appetite goes hand in hand with weight loss, which can occur over time if your horse is not finishing his meals. However, weight loss may also occur from a decreased absorption of nutrients which is linked with more severe cases of EGUS. Nutrient malabsorption happens when the lining of the stomach or small intestine has been damaged.

3. Poor Body Condition

When a horse loses weight due to a lack of appetite and/or malabsorption of nutrients, this can lead to a poor body condition. Your horse may lose muscle over the top line, neck, or hindquarters. You may see more prominent ribs and your horse may have a generally unthrifty appearance.

According to the Henneke body condition scoring system, a horse with a score of 4 or less is considered underweight. If your horse’s body condition declines over a matter of months and the feeding regimen hasn’t changed, having him evaluated by your veterinarian is a good idea.

4. Poor Coat Condition

If your horse has lost some of his usual shine or has developed a coarse coat, this may also be a sign of ulcers. A horse’s coat condition is related to his diet and also to the health of the entire digestive system. Problems on the inside can definitely be reflected on the outside.

A high parasite load and mineral imbalances can also lead to poor coat condition and should be ruled out. The  most common mineral imbalances to affect coat quality are low copper and zinc due to high iron intake.

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5. Chronic Diarrhea

Horses can have an episode of diarrhea when they are nervous or due to a sudden change in diet. They can also develop diarrhea with certain illnesses such as salmonellosis or coronavirus. However, chronic diarrhea may be a symptom of ulcers.

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