Choke in horses is an esophageal obstruction. Typically the material that is blocking the esophagus is feed, however, it can be caused by items not intended for consumption, such as bailing twine and bedding materials (Appt et, al 1996). Choking in horses is a very alarming situation to deal with, fortunately unlike humans the horses airway is not blocked and they can continue to breathe. If you suspect your horse may be suffering from choke you should contact your veterinarian immediately.
Choke in horses usually occurs soon after they have consumed feed. Often the symptoms will follow very quickly (Feige et al, 2000). These symptoms are:
- Stretching neck out
- Coughing, gagging and retching
- Cramps and tremors in neck muscles
- Discharge from both nostrils, usually frothy white or green and contains feed
- Opening mouth wide
- Sweating or signs of discomfort
If your horse is displaying the above symptoms, call your veterinarian immediately. While you wait for the vet to arrive, the following steps can be taken:
- Remove access to water and feed, this will reduce the likelihood that your horse will continue to block the esophagus will more feed matter. Access to water can increase the likelihood of aspiration pneumonia, a potentially deadly infection of the lungs
- Wipe your horse’s mouth and remove any feed in their month that you can see. Be careful not to get bitten at this step, remember your horse is stressed, so he/she may not be thinking clearly.
- Try to keep your horse (and yourself) calm.
The main cause of choke in horses is consuming feed too quickly. Hay, chaff and grains are the most common offenders, however consuming large feedstuff such as whole apples or foreign materials can also cause it (Feige et al, 2000).
Horses with poor dental health are more likely to experience choke, as they are unable to move their jaws normally when chewing food. Ensuring your horse has regular dental checkups, ideally every 12 months will decrease the likelihood of choke in horses. Feeding you horse through a slow feeder or hay net will ensure they are not eating the feed too quickly.
While the choke in horse’s episode will not necessarily result in death, the consequences of choke that is not treated correctly or resolved certainly may. As soon as the blockage is present there is damage to the esophagus (Feige et al, 2000). The veterinarian needs to remove this as quickly as they can. If this is not attainable, surgery may be required to remove the blockage.
As mentioned earlier, aspiration pneumonia is a risk when your horse is suffering from choke. If the blockage is located higher up near the throat lash area, feed that normally goes down the oesophagus to the stomach may go down the trachea and into the lungs. This feed may carry bacteria populations that can rapidly multiply in the lungs and become very difficult to treat (Feige et al, 2000). Horses that suffer aspiration pneumonia begin to show signs from 24-48 hours post choke episode.
Appt, S. A, Moll, H.D, Scarratt, W.K. Sysel, A.M. Esophageal foreign body obstruction in a mustang. Equine Pract.(1996), 8-11.
Feige, K et al. Esophageal Obstruction in Horses: A Retrospective Study of 34 Cases. Can Vet J 41.3 (2000), 207-210