Last spring, my Off-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) gelding, Ember, began colicking repeatedly. He would begin lying down and nipping at his sides just before feeding time, as often as two or three times per week. The episodes tended to coincide with excitement, such as dinner being a little late or exercising after a meal. A dose of Banamine was all he needed to perk him back up, but nonetheless I was very concerned.
Colic is the number one cause of death in horses. Essentially, colic is a catch-all term for a bellyache, and the underlying cause can range from gas to a twisted intestine. Sometimes the condition requires surgery; sometimes it’s too late even for surgical intervention. Fortunately (knock wood) Ember has never had a colic serious enough to require hospitalization. However, I was eager to find a solution to the recurring problem before it escalated.
My Horse has a What? The medicine costs how much?!
My insightful veterinarian pointed out that Ember colicked when particularly excited or stressed, and when his stomach was empty. This indicates an ulcer. Ulcers in horses can only be definitively diagnosed through a scope placed in the stomach, and even then, sometimes an ulcer exists but is not visible. For this reason, the veterinarian recommended diagnosis by treatment. In other words, we would treat Ember as if we were sure he had an ulcer, and if an improvement occurred, it would be clear that an ulcer was to blame for his recurring colic. Ulcers are very common in ex-racehorses, with some estimates stating that over 90% of Thoroughbred racehorses have at least one gastric ulcer.
There was only one problem with the suggested protocol of diagnosis by treatment: The treatment recommended for ulcers in equines, Gastro Guard (Omeprazole), is extremely expensive. Omeprazole is very effective and most horses that take a full course are rid of their ulcers, but at over $1,000 for the first month’s medication alone, I simply could not afford the treatment. After consulting with my veterinarian and another local large animal vet, I chose to try an alternative medication first.
Rantidine, sold as Zantac over the counter and by prescription for human use, was used to treat equine ulcers before Omeprazole became available. While it cures ulcers permanently in some horses, others need to continue to take the medication every day or even twice every day for life. Thanks to my trainer and instructor, who offered to give Ember his medicine each day, I was able to begin treatment with Ranitidine, which costs significantly less than Omeprazole. I was able to acquire a month’s supply of Ranitidine for about $30.00.
Soon, Ember began to gain weight, and he stopped colicking! His coat was more shiny, and he seemed altogether a more relaxed animal. He was clearly no longer in pain. The difference in my horse after a few weeks on Ranitidine was like night and day. The vet was so impressed that he prescribed the same medication to three other horses at the same boarding facility.
Ranitidine provided great results, but it wasn’t a miracle drug for Ember. It didn’t cure his gastric ulcers. Each time I tried to wean him from the medication, the colic and weight loss returned. His dose was halved from the original dose, but it became clear that Ember would need to continue taking Ranitidine for the forseeable future.
Long Term Management of Ember’s Condition
In light of this realization, I did some comparison shopping. I discovered that Zantac 150, the highest OTC dose of Zantac available, can be had rather cheaply at the Costco pharmacy. I feel a little silly carrying several bottles of maximum-strength antacids to the cashier at Costco, but it’s a small price to pay to get a good deal on a medication I’ll probably be providing to Ember for the next 20 years or more.
Recently, Ember has struggled with weight loss and nervousness again. He also had an episode of colic. It seems the ulcer is bothering him again, possibly connected to a cold front that brought several days of torrential rain to our area. I’ve doubled his dosage of Ranitidine back to his original dose. I also increased the amount of food to be given to him at meals and added some supplements to his diet. If all goes well, he’ll regain the weight soon and be able to return to his maintenance dose of his medication.
If your horse has been diagnosed with ulcers and you’re facing the huge expense of a course of Omeprazole, you may wish to consider asking your vet about Ranitidine first. If it works for your horse as it has with mine, it may be an affordable alternative for the treatment of some horses’ ulcers. After all, you can always give the Omeprazole later!
I’ll keep my readers updated on Ember’s health.
Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian or a veterinary professional. Consult your vet before attempting any course of treatment for a medical condition. All experiences stated here are my own and do not constitute professional veterinary advice. Your mileage may vary, and again, talk to your vet if you think your horse may suffer from gastric ulcers.