Gut Health In Horses

Gut issues in performance horses, even at the pleasure horse level, is receiving a lot of media attention, probably driven by the heavy advertising for this ”cure” or that. While there’s no question that keeping the horse’s digestive tract functioning properly and smoothly is important to his health and comfort, there’s no need to obsess about it. An understanding of the basics of gut function and common sense good horse management and feeding practices will do your horse more good than a host of often pricey supplements.

Manufacturers of heavily marketed gut-related products, both drugs and supplements, have put together a list of symptoms for you to watch for, but some of these are so nonspecific they could have multiple causes.

• Poor appetite, not finishing meals

• Bruxism (tooth grinding)

• Weight loss

• Poor hair coat/hoof quality

• Decreased performance and change in stride length

• ”Girthiness”

• Depression or irritability

• Change in manure

• Colic.

Poor appetite, decreased performance, change in stride length, being girthy and depression or irritability can also result from pain coming from any source (including lameness), which results in poor work ethic, loss of interest in his surroundings and just in general an unhappy horse. Gut pain/upset is just one of many possible causes.

Change in manure is a more reliable symptom of something going on with the intestinal tract, although many horses experience some degree of ”stress” diarrhea (e.g. shipping, showing/competing) and any change in the diet, including a change in hays or changes in pasture grasses, can also cause this. Colic, of course, is the most dramatic symptom on that list and usually is caused by an intestinal problem, but colic always requires your vet’s attention.

Bruxism is commonly listed as an ulcer symptom, which it may be. However, other causes are mouth/jaw pain, central nervous system disorders, liver disease, head pain, anxiety/nervousness and sometimes pain from any area of the body.

Weight loss, poor coat- or hoof-quality certainly relate to the diet, but not necessarily to how the horse is processing it in his intestinal tract.

In addition to the above signs, frequently stretching out as if to urinate was a common owner complaint in one large study. Foals with gastric ulcers also do this and will frequently lie on their backs. Stretching out and dropping the penis is commonly seen with abdominal pain of any type, as well as with back pain and urinary-tract problems.

In addition, a study in the November 2005 issue of the Equine Veterinary Journal found that hourly administration of 2 oz. of a concentrated electrolyte paste greatly increased the number and severity of gastric ulcers in horses compared to a control group given only water. Syringing-in electrolytes should be done only after a horse has had a chance to eat and drink well.

What to do’

If your horse is happy, healthy, performing well, no GI tract problems, don’t do anything. For reducing risk, remember:

• Avoid long periods (longer than four to six hours) without feeding

• Diets should be heavily forage/hay based, with whole grains added as needed for weight maintenance

• Diets with high-soluble fiber ingredients (alfalfa, beet pulp, apple pectin, psyllium) might help protect from gastric ulcers in high-performance horses

Even regular therapeutic doses of phenylbutazone may produce right dorsal colitis and are a risk factor for gastric ulcers as well. Use only when absolutely needed and for as short a time as possible.

Keeping to a schedule keeps horses as calm and secure as possible.

Introducing new dietary changes slowly, including hays and pasture, greatly reduces digestive upset.

Bottom Line

There are no supplements that can prevent gastric or colonic ulcers.

If your horse has some of the clinical symptoms that can be caused by ulcers, remember many other things can cause these, including lameness, poor saddle fit, and mouth or jaw pain to name a few. If your horse isn’t doing well, you need a thorough veterinary evaluation to find the cause.

Note: We are beginning a field trial on ulcer preventative/therapeutic supplements, which will appear in a future issue.

Article by Eleanor Kellon, VMD, our Veterinary Editor. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, magna cum laude, and has extensive experience with high-performance horses. With her husband, she breeds, races and trains Standardbred harness horses in Pennsylvania.

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