Ask The Vet: Equine Nutrition

Question: How do you tell if a colt has ulcers? Can you treat them with better nutrition?  

Answer: If you suspect your horse has gastric ulcers, no matter the age, it’s always best to schedule a visit with your veterinarian so that a full physical examination and tests can be performed, leading to an accurate diagnosis. There are several reasons for this:

1) some signs of ulcers overlap with other, more serious conditions

2) better to know what you’re dealing with and be managing it correctly than guessing, which could take longer (and wind up costing more in the end!)

3) knowing the severity of the problem will help your vet formulate the most appropriate treatment and management plan.

In general, horses demonstrate discomfort from gastric ulcers in three areas: physical signs, personality changes, and performance issues (not really a factor in a colt).

Physical signs: mild recurrent colic, a lack of energy, weight loss/poor condition, dull hair coat, lack of appetite

Personality signs (again, more common in mature horses): agitation at feeding time, irritability, resistance, poor attitude

Interestingly, young horses may exhibit two signs that mature horses often don’t: teeth grinding or bruxism and dog-sitting.

If gastric ulcers do turn out to be the culprit, the treatment and management plan will hinge upon how severe your vet determines them to be. It’s possible that in less severe cases, he or she will simply recommend a nutritional approach to support stomach health that includes feed changes and the addition of supplements. However, for higher grades of severity, it’s likely that medications will be prescribed to treat and heal the lesions.

Question: I have a 17-year-old Warmblood with a history if colic surgery and gastric ulcers. He has mildly elevated cortisol levels with no physical signs of Cushing’s disease, but is on pergolide. These levels are soon to be retested. He has bouts of impaction colic, thought to be possible entrapment. The veterinarian thinks he may have hindgut ulcers now. What is the appropriate diet for such a situation? 

Answer: I have a 17-year-old warmblood with a history of colic surgery and bouts of colic too! Like yours, mine also has additional medical issues – although not Cushing’s or ulcers – so I definitely understand how challenging finding the most appropriate diet can be.

I wish I could just lay out, step-by-step, what to feed and why, but with your horse’s history and current issues – some of which have not been definitively diagnosed yet – not only is that impossible but it also might not be the best advice until you really know what is going on.

To get that diagnosis, I recommend starting with the new recommendations for identifying Cushing’s Disease or PPID (Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction). The Equine Endocrinology Group chaired by Dr. Nick Franks at Tufts University has recently released updated guidelines:

Once you know if you are really and truly dealing with Cushing’s or not (and whether pergolide is necessary), then you can move on to diagnosing gastric and/or hindgut ulcers and then treating and managing them, if necessary. This is important because how we feed gastric ulcers is darn near the complete opposite of how we feed hindgut ulcers or right dorsal colitis. That is, we try to keep forage in front of horses with ulcers in their stomachs at all times, while horses with ulcers in their colon need a “rest” from long-stem roughage and may go on a complete pelleted feed temporarily.

Get that accurate diagnosis then gradually adjust his diet based on the results and soon your warmblood will be on the right track diet-wise!

Courtesy of AAEP
Answered by Lydia Gray, DVM, MA, SmartPak Equine