Food-related factors linked to gastric ulcers in horses explored

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Insufficient forage intake as well as high sugars and starch intake were most commonly linked with gastric ulcers in the cases investigated.
Insufficient forage intake, as well as high sugars and starch intake, were most commonly linked with gastric ulcers in the cases investigated.

Insufficient forage and high starch intake were common factors for stomach ulcers among a group of horses in Belgium, researchers report.

Equine gastric ulcer syndrome (EGUS) can affect the stomach, the lower oesophagus and the first part of the duodenum. The condition is common, although its prevalence varies. It has been reported to be as high as 89% in racehorses.

Affected horses tend to have non-specific clinical signs such as mild colic, a poor appetite, weight loss, a poor coat, crib-biting, reduced performance and behavioural changes.

Ghent University researchers Nicolas Galinelli, Wendy Wambacq, Bart Broeckx and Myriam Hesta noted that several predisposing factors have been linked with equine gastric ulcers in horses, including age, breed, gender, diet changes, stress, electrolyte use, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Poor nutrition — either lower quality feedstuffs and/or inappropriate ration formulation — can also be triggers. Nutritional factors identified so far include intermittent feeding, alfalfa chaff in weaned foals, a high intake of sugars and starch, large amounts of straw in the diet, and prolonged time without forage access.

The study team set out to investigate which nutritional practices are commonly seen in clinical cases of equine squamous gastric disease — gastric ulcers affecting the upper non-acid-producing portion of the stomach — in Belgium.

The medical records of 27 horses referred to the equine nutritional service at the university between 2013 and 2018 because of gastric ulcers were reviewed. The information included dietary background collected in a standard questionnaire used by the service.

Twenty-one healthy horses referred for dietary assessment in the same period were used as controls. The same nutritional questionnaire had been used in evaluating them.

The researchers, reporting in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, found no significant differences in sugars and starch intake per kilogram of bodyweight per day for the horses. However, the sugars and starch intake per meal in the control group was significantly lower than in the group affected by ulcers.

Insufficient forage intake, as well as high sugars and starch intake, were most commonly linked with gastric ulcers in the cases investigated, they reported.

The evidence pointed to low numbers of meals and too much time between meals as also being factors.

The authors noted the desirability of providing free access to forage for horses with ulcers. However, free forage access might not be sufficiently protective if sugar and starch intake is too high, they said.

“An adequate diet formulation taking into account these main nutritional factors is therefore essential to avoid gastric problems in horses,” they concluded.

The authors said it would be interesting to investigate the correlation between the area affected by ulcers and the associated pre-disposing nutritional factors. This was not possible in their study because of the lack of horses with equine glandular gastric disease (ulcers affecting the lower acid-producing portion of the stomach).

High intake of sugars and starch, low number of meals and low roughage intake are associated with Equine Gastric Ulcer Syndrome in a Belgian cohort
Nicolas Galinelli, Wendy Wambacq, Bart J.G. Broeckx, Myriam Hesta
Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition, 22 October 2019 https://doi.org/10.1111/jpn.13215

The study can be read in full here

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