Electrolytes and Ulcers: Is There a Link?

I’ve heard lately that electrolytes are contraindicated for horses with a history of ulcers – is this true? My OTTB mare was diagnosed and treated successfully for her ulcers with the appropriate course of GastroGard last year but I have been giving her daily electrolytes since I bought her, not knowing they could be doing damage. Should I not give her electrolytes and if so, what should I be providing for her? She is ridden 6 days a week and sweats a good amount.
– KT, Rhode Island

Dear KT,

Good job on getting your mare diagnosed and treated for gastric ulcers! Now ensure they don’t return by focusing on lots of forage, lots of turnout time, lots of social interaction and limited grain, stress and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Also consider providing a daily supplement clinically proven to maintain stomach health.

As far as electrolytes go, I don’t think you have anything to worry about and it sounds to me like your horse can really benefit from a daily serving. I believe the study that got you and everyone all worried about electrolytes and ulcers in horses was this one:

Holbrook TC, Simmons RD, Payton ME, MacAllister CG. Effect of repeated oral administration of hypertonic electrolyte solution on equine gastric mucosa. Equine Vet J. 2005 Nov:37(6):501-504.

The researchers know that endurance horses have a high incidence of gastric ulcers, and that endurance horses receive electrolyte paste frequently throughout competition so they designed a specific study to test whether the two are related. Fourteen horses were divided randomly into equal groups and administered either 60ml water (placebo) or 56.7 grams of a commercial electrolyte supplement mixed with 60ml water by dose syringe orally once an hour for 8 hours. Gastric lesions were scored before and after oral treatments. They found a significant increase in ulcer number and severity, and concluded that this particular schedule of electrolyte supplementation (used commonly in endurance horses) may be harmful to the gastric mucosa.

Now, you’re not giving electrolytes anywhere NEAR the amount or frequency that the researchers did in this study. And I am unaware of any study that shows once daily administration of electrolytes in the feed has any impact on the stomach lining. In my opinion, it’s much healthier to replenish the minerals your mare is losing in sweat and to stimulate her to drink to also replace the water she has lost. Sounds to me like you’re doing the right thing—keep it up!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM, MA SmartPak Staff Veterinarian and Medical Director Dr. Lydia Gray has earned a Bachelor of Science in agriculture, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), and a Master of Arts focusing on interpersonal and organizational communication. After “retiring” from private practice, she put her experience and education to work as the American Association of Equine Practitioner’s first-ever Director of Owner Education. Dr. Gray continues to provide health and nutrition information to horse owners through her position at SmartPak, through publication in more than a dozen general and trade publications, and through presentations around the country. She is the very proud owner of a Trakehner named Newman that she actively competes with in dressage and combined driving. In addition to memberships in the USDF and USEF, Dr. Gray is also a member of the Illinois Dressage and Combined Training Association (IDCTA). She is a USDF “L” Program Graduate and is currently working on her Bronze Medal. Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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2 comments on “Electrolytes and Ulcers: Is There a Link?
  1. B Sloper says:

    My vet today on scoping a horse with grade 4 gatric ulcers explained that electrolytes, being salty, may irritate ulcers, especialy where the ulcers have formed “tiger stripes” along which the saliva laden with electrolyte salts will run. The pain from this can reduce a horse’s appetite resulting in less buffering of the acid which causes ulcers.

  2. T.L. says:

    I had a horse that was recovering from colic surgery and had ulcers. When I gave him the surgery vet recommended electrolyte paste he had an accute pain reaction curling his lip within 10 minuites and showed colic symptons starting within 15 minuites. I discontinued the electrolytes immediately and called my regular vet. He told me the old fashioned vets used to tube a horse with salt water and if they had a reaction they knew the horse had ulcers. I do not use electrolytes on a horse that I suspect may have ulcer problems

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