Stomach pain and gastric ulcers can be due to multiple factors. The signs – or symptoms – of a gastric ulcer can also differ from horse to horse. There is, therefore, no uniform symptomatology that can be applied universally to each patient. In most cases, the symptoms are insidious and therefore go unnoticed at first.
This explains why gastric ulcers are often not detected until late. Gastroscopy is the only way to clearly diagnose your horse’s stomach ulcers. The earlier the symptoms are detected, the earlier the treatment can be. To do this, you must know your horse’s behavior and have some talent for animal observation – and of course, have this list of the most common symptoms. In any case, memorizing them roughly can not harm anyone. Here are the 21 symptoms that can indicate a gastric ulcer. The symptoms presented by horses suffering from a stomach ulcer are numerous and, above all, not always very clear.
1. Lack of appetite
Generally, horses with stomach problems have a reduced appetite. Loss of appetite is often gradual. Horses begin, for example, by no longer throwing themselves at their food as they usually did, by constantly stirring the food in their manger, or by not finishing their ration. Often, they also shun roughage.
People who suffer from stomach problems also know this symptom: when the stomach is upset, the appetite suffers. Digestion involves the contraction of the stomach. This is especially painful in areas where the mucosa is damaged. If stomach acid reaches the inflamed areas, the result is a particularly unpleasant burning sensation.
Lack of appetite often goes hand in hand with weight loss. The amount of food ingested is too low to provide the body with sufficient energy and nutrients, resulting in a loss of body mass. The first signs of weight loss are, that ribs become obvious on the horse’s body. The same goes for the hip bones. Of course, the muscle mass also decreases eve more. Weight loss in horses is not noticeable overnight. It would certainly be wrong to claim that the presence of the other symptoms would be desirable. However, when a horse has such a condition, it indicates some problems – including a stomach ulcer.
These mild colics usually occur after taking concentrated foods and do not last very long. The horse contracts its belly, possibly taps its belly with its posteriors, and/or lies down several times and rolls over. These colics usually go away on their own after a while.
Compared to the absorption of a kilo of hay, the absorption of a kilo of concentrated food leads to less production of saliva rich in bicarbonate. Thus, the gastric acid resulting from the ingestion of concentrated feed is much less well-buffered than during the ingestion of hay.
Not all horses with gastric ulcers have dull coats. Indeed, some horses have a shiny coat despite the presence of ulcers, and all the outward signs suggest that they are in good health. In many cases, however, the intestinal flora is disturbed as a result of gastric ulcers or the resulting symptoms, such as lack of appetite or weight loss. The intestine is then no longer able to absorb a sufficient quantity of nutrients. The metabolism lacks nutrients, and the hair loses its luster – it becomes dull.
Stomach pain and reduced nutrient intake can lead to lower performance levels. The horse does not have enough energy to provide the required effort. The horse seems listless and lacks vigor. He is reluctant to trot and is difficult to motivate. This symptom is especially marked when the pain is acute. Just like humans, horses suffering from pain and lacking energy are not able to reach their maximum performance.
Whether in the box, on the pasture, during grooming, or under the saddle – a constantly yawning horse is a relatively clear indication that he is suffering from the gastrointestinal tract. At the same time, yawning helps reduce stress. But if stomach patients are particularly sensitive to one thing, it’s stress – as a trigger for gastric ulcer and/or as a consequence of pain. Some horses continue to yawn from time to time, even after successful therapy and, thus, a successfully treated gastric ulcer.
In this context, stress is, of course, not a symptom but a cause. However, if we consider the problem of gastric ulcers, it hangs like a sword of Damocles above the heads of our horses. Also, we advise you to read the corresponding article on stress in horses and how to reduce it as much as possible. Because at the end of the day, good animal observation skills are key to detecting ulcers – knowing that false alarms should be avoided, mere suspicion of ulcer leading to a veterinary examination, which is rarely considered a cakewalk by the horse. This brings us back to stress, by the way.
In the horse, the flehmen consists of stretching the head forward and folding the upper lip upwards. In most cases, horses exhibit this behavior when they perceive an odor and want to identify it more closely. But flehmen can also be a sign of pain and discomfort. It is observed in many horses suffering from ulcers or colic.
Considered a sign of submission by many riders, empty chewing can also indicate that the horse is suffering from stomach issues. Horses move their jaws or chew when they are not eating, and their mouths are empty. Unlike empty chewing as a sign of submission, the lower jaw appears to be genuinely grinding food. Usually, it is not limited to a few chewing movements.
Often it is difficult to know which came first – gastric ulcer or tic. Indeed, both can be both cause and consequence. However, it is often observed that, in ticking horses, this behavior is further increased following a gastric ulcer.
In this way, horses try to stimulate the production of saliva in order to relieve stomach pain. Sometimes some horses also begin to tick along with the onset of gastric ulcers. Typically, horses press their incisors against an object and swallow air. The contraction of the lower neck muscles leads to the opening of the pharynx and the typical noise sounds. The tic in the air is rarer. Here, the horse swallows air without leaning on an object.
Horses with a reduced general condition often seem withdrawn or even depressed. They are passive, uninterested in their stable mates or, in many cases, their handlers, and often keep their heads in the corner.
Horses stomach ulcers are often unrecognizable. Thus, the most tolerant horses can suddenly become aggressive troublemakers who disrupt the harmony within the herd, or the most sociable animals can turn into loners. Who prefer to stay alone in the paddock and have peace.
Points 10 and 11 clearly show that the range of behavioral changes from introverted to aggressive is extremely wide. Here, it’s up to you, as the owner, and the healers to come into play. Good knowledge of the personality and particularities of your horse is absolutely essential in order to be able to discern whether you are dealing with a problem, a temporary bad mood, or the habitual character of the horse.
12. Defensive behavior during strapping
In many horses, stomach pain triggers defensive behavior when strapping down or even when putting down the saddle. The girth is located in the horse’s stomach area. When you tighten the girth, the horse contracts its belly and, therefore, its stomach. Gastric acid then reaches the sensitive part of the stomach and is, therefore, likely to attack the damaged gastric mucosa. This is extremely painful for the horse. This one then launches its hind legs in the direction of the strap or the human being; it beats its tail and sometimes even tries to bite its rider. This behavior is very typical in horses with gastric ulcers.
Initially, many riders believe that their horses simply refuse to cooperate. Fenders under the saddle are often primarily due to harness or back problems. However, stomach problems should not be overlooked either. Horses experience intense pain, especially when working under the saddle, and then work in a posture that allows them to relieve this pain. They contract at the level of the back, appear tense, leave in sheep jumps, become soft and suddenly refuse to make efforts.
Downhill, especially, gastric acid reaches the sensitive stomach area. If it is damaged by ulcers, it can be very unpleasant for the horse. The horse hesitates to descend a slope, rushes, or even refuses to move forward.
15. Difficulty lying down
Even when lying down, movements are increased in the stomach. This inevitably contracts when the horse lies down, which then causes pain. It seems that the horse thinks about how he wants to lie down. He hesitates and can take it several times. Sometimes he prefers to stay standing in the end. It is also observed in many cases that once lying, they remain so.
These horses are thus lying down for a large part of the day and therefore devote less time to absorbing food, which only aggravates the problem since the horse’s stomach is constantly producing acid. However, this “fasting period” leads to a lack of saliva, and the unbuffered acid then attacks the unprotected walls of the stomach – the vicious circle closes.
By producing more saliva, the horse or body attempts to counteract the low pH of the stomach. Saliva has a basic pH and buffers stomach acid. Horses have been observed to salivate even when they are not eating, chewing anything, or having a bit in their mouths. This increased salivation is often observed after the ingestion of concentrated foods.
Most horse owners think their horses have a mineral deficiency when they lick things. But this phenomenon is also observed in horses suffering from gastric ulcers. The extent of this phenomenon varies from horse to horse. But the objects licked by the horse can also be very diverse. Typically, horses lick metal objects, but they can also lick wooden or concrete walls.
It is impossible to state in general that horses suffering from gastric ulcers absorb more or less water. This can vary greatly from animal to animal. Some horses may drink substantially more, others substantially less. The use of automatic drinkers means that, in many cases, this symptom is often neglected or even difficult to control. Depending on the work required, the weather conditions, and the type of stable, a 600 kg horse drinks about 30 to 60 liters of water per day.
19. Encamped Position
Some horses spread their forelegs in relation to the hindquarters in order to relieve their stomach and intestines. This position should not be confused with the position of relief of the exhausted horses. Here, the horses shift their weight to their hindquarters.
In acute cases, an increased pulse and mild fever may occur. These symptoms are often accompanied by mild colic. This is due to severe pain in the stomach.
A horse’s normal pulse ranges from 28 to 44 beats per minute, and its temperature from 37.5 to 38.2 degrees. If its values are exceeded, it is advisable to consult a veterinarian urgently.
Tail whipping during feed ingestion is very atypical in healthy horses and is a clear sign of gastric ulcers. Tail whipping indicates a feeling of pain and discomfort. The ingestion of food and the subsequent digestion is painful for the horse, and this one shows it clearly by whipping its tail.