Gastric Ulcers – Optimum Feeds & Nutritional Management

There is not a nutrient, combination of nutrients, herb, supplement or feed formula that can treat, prevent or cure gastric ulcers. Any such claim would be anecdotal, not supported by the science and irresponsible. Gastric ulcers must be diagnosed and treated clinically by a veterinarian.

Ulcers, stomach or hindgut, involve a chronic change in “normal” pH. Yes, certain feeds can influence gut pH, such as starchy grains like corn and barley, high molasses feeds and alfalfa. Diets high in alfalfa hay will cause a more alkaline pH in the hindgut which is the type of pH that is associated with intestinal stones (enteroliths). Grains that escape enzymatic digestion are fermented in the hindgut and will cause a more acid pH, a precursor to hindgut acidosis.

There are, however, some nutritional management factors to consider that will support the digestive health of your horse. You want feeds that require the horse to chew. An increase in chewing will increase salvia being produced to moisten the food. Equally important is that the saliva is alkaline, a buffer to the acid or low pH environment of the stomach. Not only does it buffer the stomach acids but also the bile acids. Horses are unique in that bile acids are secreted continuously—there is no gallbladder. The bile acids enter the small intestine just pass the junction of the stomach and small intestine which is why on an empty stomach the bile acids can reflux back into the stomach causing damage to the lining. Hence, the importance of extending the eating times period and an issue with meal feeding.

Integrity Horse Feed - Lite No Molasses
Integrity Adult Senior Horse Feed

A goal should be to extend the eating time period to reduce “empty stomach” syndrome so that the stomach is not empty for more than 6 hours. A horse’s gut is designed for a continuous eater, not a meal eater. The stomach’s primary functions include mixing, changing the pH of the food mix, and preparing protein and starches to be broken down by enzymes in the small intestine. The stomach is small and food does not remain in this small compartment very long.

Current management practices involve meal feeding, usually two times per day and not spaced our more than 6-8 hours apart. How does one extend the eating time period? Feeding grass hay is one. Other options include placing the hay in at least 3 locations in the paddock which requires movement and slows the consumption pace. Another is the use of hay nets that limit the amount of hay that can be removed. A combination of these two options is even better. You can purchase a hay net that has reduced openings or uses conventional hay nets. With conventional hay nets, use 2 or 3 inserting one into the other to further reduce the openings.

One of the challenges with pellet foods is that they require less chewing time, resulting in less saliva, less buffering during the digestive process, and less time of food in the stomach and small intestine during digestion.

Most Integrity products are textured feeds and the major ingredients are beet pulp and soy hulls. Because they are in pelleted form, the horse chews more to moisten the feed before swallowing. More chewing increases saliva, which increases buffering capacity.

One of the reasons I formulate more texture feeds than pellet feeds are because I want the horse to chew for the benefits of producing more bicarbonate. Bicarbonate is critical to the digestive process enzymatically and microbially.

The Integrity product line was designed to contribute to sound nutritional management practices. Integrity Lite is high fiber and beet pulp and soy hulls. It does not have oats, barley or corn grains. Take a look at the label and you will note that beet pulp and soy hulls are the first two ingredients.

Both Integrity Lite and Adult/Senior are available without molasses and the Adult/Senior’s first two ingredients are also beet pulp and soy hulls. Integrity Adult/Senior contains a small amount of oats, but note that it’s the sixth ingredient on the label. Oats are actually modest in fiber (11% crude fiber) and much lower in starch compared to starch and fiber content of corn (2% crude fiber) and barley (6% crude fiber). These products can be used not only to provide a balanced formula but also to assist in feeding management.

Other nutritional management considerations include feeding grass forages, not cereal grain or alfalfa hays. Also, feed balanced formulas that are void of corn and barley and have minimal oats, if any.

Factors other than types of food that will influence gastric ulcer development include stress, isolation, stall restriction, lack of exercise, lack of paddock free-time and certain racing breeds. Racing breeds have a higher connection to stress, likely due to the stress of training, stall isolation, and large meals.