Choke In Horses

A horse suffering from choke and showing nostril discharge
A horse suffering from choke and showing nasal discharge

This week our pony, Dudley, had choke, so I thought I might share some information on choke in horses, the symptoms, treatment and prevention.

Choke in horses is a potentially life threatening condition and therefore as a horse owner it is important to know and understand the condition.  Choke occurs when the oesophagus becomes blocked, usually with food or occasionally a foreign object.

Choke often happens when a horse eats their food too quickly, either gulping or not chewing properly and then the food blokes up in the oesophagus.  Horses that have dental problems and are unable to chew their food properly may also be at higher risk.  Dry foods or hay also increase the risk of choke or when horses have limited access to water.  Medical conditions like tumors or scarring from previous surgeries or injuries can also increase the risk of choke as the size of the oesophagus may be reduced.  Occasionally choke occurs due to a foreign body, like wood or sticks becoming stuck in the oesophagus.  Horses that wind suck or crib are more likely to have this problem as a piece of wood may break off when they are cribbing.
Knowing what choke is and identifying it early is important.  Sometimes choke might be seen within minutes of it occurring and other times the horse may have been suffering from choke for days before being seen.
Some signs of choke include;
*  Difficulty swallowing
*  Coughing
*  Stretching out of the neck
*  Mouth open, looks like they are yawning
*  Bulge in neck on the left side, where the blockage is
*  Discharge from the nostrils, often frothy, containing saliva and food (that has been ingested & causing the blockage).  Often green if grass or hay is causing the blockage or brown from pellets.
*  Anxious and stressed
*  Signs of pain or distress, similar to colic signs, like pawing, pacing, lying down, rolling.

Choke is a veterinary emergency and you should contact your vet immediately if you think that your horse is suffering from choke.  The first thing you should do if choke is suspected is to remove all food and water from the horse.  This is important as any more food or water that is ingested will further impact the blockage and make it bigger.  While waiting for the vet try and keep the horse calm to reduce any extra anxiety or stress.  Occasionally choke will pass or clear on its own, however it is still best that a vet checks the horse over.  When a vet arrives they will examine the horse to determine that choke is in fact the issue.  If choke is the problem the vet will usually sedate the horse, this helps to reduce the anxiety but also relaxes the muscles.  Sometimes a sedation is enough to relax the muscles and allow the blockage to pass.  A vet may also administer an antispasmodic drug to relax the muscles of the oesophagus.

If administering these drugs is not enough to clear the blockage the vet will pass a stomach tube through the nostrils and down the oesophagus to the stomach.  When the tube reaches the blockage it will not be able to pass any further.  Gentle pressure applied to the blockage with the tube may sometimes move it down and into the stomach.  Usually the vet will need to use water flushed down the tube to the obstruction.  The water will help soften and break down a food blockage and allow it to pass to the stomach.  This process can take up to a half an hour or more before the entire blockage is cleared.  If the stomach tube process does not clear the blockage surgery may be required.  This will usually take place in a veterinary hospital and it involves cutting into the oesophagus and surgically removing the blockage.

After a horse has suffered from choke there is a chance of some “post choke” complications.  The greatest risk is that the horse may develop pneumonia.  This can occur because during a choke episode food materials, water and saliva may be aspirated into the lungs.  A vet will usually place a horse on antibiotics to reduce the risk of pneumonia developing and the horse should be closely monitored for several days.  To help settle any inflammation in the oesophagus the vet may also prescribe anti-inflammatories.  For a few days following a choke episode the horse should be fed soft, wet feeds.  This is because the oesophagus may still be inflamed and painful after having a blockage and the wet food will be easier for them to swallow.  Sometimes the inflammation caused by choke can develop into tissue scarring of the oesophagus.  This can then narrow the diameter of the oesophagus and increase the risk of choke occurring again. If a horse does suffer from recurring choke their diet may need to be permanently changed to a wet feed.

There are a couple of things you can do to help prevent choke and they are particularly important to follow if your horse has previous suffered from choke.  Firstly you should always provide plenty of water for your horse.  Feed wet, soft feeds by soaking dry foods or wetting down feed and hay.  Try and stop your horse from eating too quickly or gulping food.  You can do this by spreading food out, adding a lick block to the feed bin so they have to eat around it and feeding horses in separate yards so they don’t feel pressured to eat quickly.

As for our pony, Dudley, thankfully his blockage was easily cleared.  I believe that he developed the blockage in the oesophagus after he gulped his food, as he can be a little guts sometimes.  He was administered antibiotics and anti inflammatories and fed wet feeds for a week.  He has not had any further complications after his choke.

If you have any concerns about your horses health or you think they might be suffering from choke please contact your veterinarian immediately.

Until next time,

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Author: Bec

From a very young age Bec has always had a great love and appreciation for all animals. Bec is a qualified Veterinary Nurse and also has a Bachelor in Applied Science Animal Studies with special interest in Wildlife and Recreational Animals. Her studies have been put to good use working in various animal industries including small and large animal veterinary clinics, horse studs and the family cattle property. Horses have played an important part in her life, living on a horse stud and caring for horses throughout breeding, foaling, spelling, racing and retirement. Bec is the proud mum of two gorgeous girls, a beautiful Cocker Spaniel, a cheeky cockatiel, chickens and many horses including a naughty little pony.