Staggering levels of gastric lesions seen in weaned foals in a study

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Clinically significant gastric lesions in a foal 14 days after weaning, characterised by deep ulceration in the squamous epithelium and acute haemorrhage (black arrow). Its blood sucrose concentration meant this foal would have been correctly identified as positive for equine gastric ulcer syndrome using the blood sucrose test. Photo: Hewetson et al. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13028-018-0377-5
Clinically significant gastric lesions in a foal 14 days after weaning, characterised by deep ulceration in the squamous epithelium and acute haemorrhage (black arrow). Its blood sucrose concentration meant this foal would have been correctly identified as positive for equine gastric ulcer syndrome using the blood sucrose test. Photo: Hewetson et al. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13028-018-0377-5

A “staggering” 98 percent of foals in a study developed gastric lesions within two weeks of weaning.

“This is the first study that has reported prevalence data for foals immediately after weaning despite a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggesting weaning as a risk factor for equine gastric ulcer syndrome,” Michael Hewetson and his colleagues wrote in the journal, Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica.

The high percentage of gastric lesions in weaned foals underscored the importance of gastric ulceration in this age group, they said.

The finding was reported in a study in which researchers found that a simple blood sucrose test may be useful in efforts to identify foals with stomach lesions.

Because blood sucrose levels relate not only to equine gastric ulcer syndrome, the test is unlikely to replace gastroscopy in diagnosing the problem. However, indications are it could be clinically useful in identifying foals that might benefit from gastroscopy, the researchers said.

Equine gastric ulcer syndrome, or EGUS, is an important cause of disease in foals, with a reported prevalence in scientific literature ranging from 22% to 57%.

Although it is most commonly seen in older weanling foals, ulcers have also been reported in foals as young as 24 hours.

While some foals show no outwards signs of ulcers, others can show ill thrift, a lack of appetite, excessive saliva production, teeth grinding and even colic. Some ulcers can even perforate, causing death.

“Considering the potentially fatal consequences of gastric ulceration in the foal and the fact that up to 57% of foals are asymptomatic, large scale screening on stud farms to ensure an early diagnosis and prompt treatment prior to the development of complications is desirable,” the authors said.

Currently, gastroscopy is considered the only reliable way to definitively diagnosis the problem in foals. However, it is unsuitable as a screening test because of the cost and time involved.

A sucrose permeability test represented a simple, economical alternative to gastroscopy for screening purposes, they said, noting that the diagnostic accuracy of a blood sucrose test in adult horses had previously been reported.

However, the same cannot be assumed for foals because there were fundamental changes in the gastric lining of the stomach that occur in the first six months of life that may alter permeability to sucrose.

The researchers described their research involving 45 weanling foals, all from one stud farm. None had been reported as showing any clinical signs suggestive of gastric lesions at the time of gastroscopy.

Each foal was subjected to gastroscopy and sucrose permeability testing twice – seven days before and 14 days after weaning.

“The prevalence of gastric lesions prior to weaning was 21% and increased to a staggering 98% within two weeks of weaning,” the study team reported.

Their results and analysis indicated that a blood sucrose permeability test was a useful screening test for detecting gastric ulcers in weanlings. The results of each test not only provided a good indication of whether lesions were likely to be present, but also whether they were in the upper (squamous) part of the stomach, the lower acid-secreting portion of the stomach, and whether they were clinically significant.

It fulfilled all major criteria for a screening test: it was economical; minimally invasive and acceptable to owners; was easy to perform; and accurate, with good sensitivity.

The authors noted that, despite the severity of disease seen in some foals, none had shown clinical signs at the time of testing.

This, they said, made the results of the study very relevant to the general population, where many foals with severe ulcers do not demonstrate clinical signs. “Therefore the benefit of a sensitive screening test cannot be underestimated.”

The full study team comprised Hewetson, Monica Venner, Jan Volquardsen, Ben William Sykes, Gayle Davina Hallowell, Ingrid Vervuert, Geoffrey Theodore Fosgate and Riitta-Mari Tulamo.

  • Prior to weaning, the mares and foals had access to grass hay and water ad libitum; and were fed about 13kg per mare and foal per day of a total mixed ration comprising 3kg of corn silage, 6kg of grass silage, 2kg of oats, 0.5kg of straw, 0.3kg of soybean meal, and 50 grams of a commercial mineral vitamin supplement. After weaning, foals were separated from their dams, and were fed the same total mixed ration or alfalfa chaff in addition to ad libitum grass hay.

Diagnostic accuracy of blood sucrose as a screening test for equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) in weanling foals
Michael Hewetson, Monica Venner, Jan Volquardsen, Ben William Sykes, Gayle Davina Hallowell, Ingrid Vervuert, Geoffrey Theodore Fosgate and Riitta-Mari Tulamo
Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica 2018 60:24 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13028-018-0377-5

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here

10 thoughts on “Staggering levels of gastric lesions seen in weaned foals in a study

  • April 16, 2018 at 2:10 pm
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    Are these predominantly thoroughbreds? Would like to know.

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  • June 23, 2019 at 12:46 pm
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    How old were the foals at the time of weaning

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    • June 30, 2019 at 11:40 am
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      If you leave weaning until the foal is older would you reduce the risk of this happening?
      Possibly a comparative study on older weanlings would be very useful.

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  • June 27, 2019 at 12:17 am
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    Both of the above are great questions and were they turned out with other foals after weaning. I watch a LOT of wild horses they wean their babies differently, but that wouldn’t be viable for horses among humans

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    • June 30, 2019 at 11:11 am
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      we wean all our foals close to one year of age and make sure before we wean then out of the herd we place them with a buddy horse and the mare as well. Many times the stallion is starting to chase them out so they are happy to be taken out, as well. Our stallions do this with both the colts and the fillies as well and suspect it is a built in trait to stop the inbreeding in natural run herds. So yes, this is viable for horses amongst humans, however in the past breeders have found many reasons to wean early. The only person that this benefits is the breeder as better to get them sold and out before 6 months as that way they do not have to take them through the winter, nor feed the mare twice as much as she is more and likely pregnant and feeding a growing foal. Also what causes the ulcerations is under stress the body releases cortisol, adrenaline amongst other hormones. These are flight or fright hormones and need in a response where extra energy or strength is needed and are used up immediately in this manner. However, we accept that long term stress is a killer and the same goes for the foal being weaned “too” early, as the continual release of these hormones creates alot of acid build up in the system which then ulcerates in turn. It also has other very long ranging effects that are detrimental to the body as a whole, but that is another subject.

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  • June 27, 2019 at 2:32 am
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    This is a good start. The study does not address environment or handling as a potential contributor by using only one farm, and does not address the potential for feed-related factors if there is a high concentration of toxins (pesticides, herbicides, etc) in the feed. To control for multiple unnamed factors, the mares, and another group of horses, should have been tested also.

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  • June 30, 2019 at 5:43 am
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    I recall reading a study by UCDavis on cribbing and foals. They found that foals that were fed too high a protein turned to cribbing to reduce the pain from the amount of acid in their stomachs. Could this possibly be the same for causing lesions and ulcers? Have we not done enough study on the diets of weanlings?

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  • June 30, 2019 at 8:49 am
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    So this study other than telling us there are more weanlings with users than we think..and that a sucrose test can help identify…but what what is not explained is why this is happening…is it the stress of weaning? Do they need to be with dams longer? Perhaps the digestive system is not fit to deal with what you were feeding them..and as others asked breed of horse helps to know…inquiring minds would love to know!

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  • June 30, 2019 at 1:43 pm
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    It would be informative to test weaned foals separated from their dams and foals that were weaned by their dams in a more natural setting.

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  • July 1, 2019 at 12:19 am
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    Considerable proof exists in other species fed GMO feeds to cause these types of lesions.
    Can we ever ditch the GMO’s and herbicides/ Pesticides?

    Reply

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