Gastric Cancer in Horses: Researchers Scope out the Details

Abdominal tumors are only rarely diagnosed in horses, but the amount of time horses usually survive after such a finding is shockingly short. Because the signs of gastric cancer are vague, diagnosing gastric cancer in horses can be challenging. Often, even narrowing the problem down to the stomach in a timely fashion proves to be near impossible.

To better describe what a horse with gastric cancer "looks" like and how to best diagnose it, researchers from the University of California at Davis' Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital reviewed the medical records of 24 horses diagnosed with gastric cancer between 1990 and 2008.

The authors found that gastric neoplasias account for only 1.5% of all equine cancers, but the median survival time after diagnosing gastric cancer was only four weeks. In fact, none of the horses diagnosed with gastric cancer in this study was ever discharged from the hospital.

No breed or sex predilections were identified, but affected horses did tend to be older (9-25 years of age). The most common signs of disease in these horses were:

  • Inappetance;
  • Weight loss;
  • Lethargy;
  • Hypersalivation;
  • Colic, and
  • Fever

The best diagnostic techniques included a rectal exam, routine blood work, gastroscopy, belly tap (abdominocentesis), and transabdominal ultrasound.

In addition to the difficulties associated with diagnosing gastric cancer, the high rate of metastasis (the spread of the cancer to other body parts), the lack of viable treatment modalities, and the financial aspects of treating large animals make gastric cancer particularly devastating.

Despite the grim picture of gastric cancer painted by the authors, they did conclude that advances in equine medicine and surgery could ultimately increase survival time "if the primary gastric tumor is detected before metastasis."

The study, "Gastric Neoplasia in Horses," is scheduled to be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. The abstract is currently available on PubMed.

Disclaimer: Seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian before proceeding with any diagnosis, treatment, or therapy.