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No Shortcut for Diagnosing Equine Gastric UlcersBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · May 23, 2016

Gastric ulcers occur more frequently in certain groups of horses: race and endurance horses in training, foals at the time of weaning, or any horse during times of stress. How do you know if your horse has one or more ulcers? Usually, a clear diagnosis can only be achieved if the horse undergoes endoscopic examination, which involves having the veterinarian pass a long flexible tube with a camera in the tip into the stomach to directly visualize and assess the defects.

“Despite being effective, endoscopy is expensive, invasive, and time-consuming, unfortunately,” explained Kathleen Crandell, Ph.D., a Kentucky Equine Research (KER) nutritionist, adding “The number of veterinarians that have the necessary equipment is limited.”

As an alternative, some owners assume their horses have one or more ulcers if they display classic signs associated with the condition: colic, diarrhea, poor appetite, dull coat, decreased performance, and possibly behavior changes.

Recognizing the need for a quick, economical, and effective screening test to help identify horses with ulcers, a group of researchers recently evaluated whether sucrose, a simple sugar similar to glucose, could identify ulcers. The hypothesis was that sucrose passes through ulcerated stomach tissue and can be measured in blood, indicating the both the presence and severity of ulceration.

To test the usefulness of sucrose to diagnose ulcers, Heweston and coworkers* administered sucrose via nasogastric tube to 101 horses either with or without gastric ulcers. Blood sucrose levels were subsequently assessed 45 and 90 minutes after administration.

The researchers found that the test wasn’t as sweet as they had hoped, concluding that blood sucrose was “neither a sensitive or specific test for detecting gastric ulcers in adult horses with naturally occurring ulcers.”

“In addition to dietary and management changes to help ulcer-prone horses, consider using KER’s research-proven digestive aid RiteTrac, which supports the health of the stomach. Horse owners in Australia should look for other proven digestive aids,” advised Crandell.  

*Heweston, M., B.W. Sykes, G. Hallowell, et al. 2015. Diagnostic accuracy of blood sucrose as a screening test for diagnosis of gastric ulceration in adult horses. Clinical Research Abstracts. British Equine Veterinary Association Congress. Equine Veterinary Journal 47(Suppl. 48):8.