Choke is termed by vets as a minor veterinary emergency, but if your horse has ever had ‘choke’ you might have found it quite an alarming experience. In this article, we will look at what choke is, how to prevent this from occurring and what to do if your horse suffers from choke.
Choke is correctly termed ‘oesophagal obstruction’, and most commonly this is caused by dry feed, or a treat such as a carrot, becoming lodged in the oesophagus. Unlike when a human chokes, the horse can still breathe as it is the oesophagus that is blocked, not the trachea, so breathing is not restricted.
In an effort to clear the blockage the horse will cough and splutter, and saliva and food materials will pass out of the nostrils. This can be rather distressing for both horse and owner. It is important to keep your horse calm and try to encourage the horse to lower its head to help clear the blockage. Choke generally resolves quite quickly on its own, but it is advisable to call your vet as some cases may require clearing which only your vet can perform.
What causes choke?
Choke is generally caused by feed or treats. Sometimes this is due to a feed, such as sugar beet, not being soaked sufficiently, or dry chaff not being sufficiently watered down. If sugar beet, or any other feed designed to be soaked, is inadvertently fed dry this can expand in the oesophagus and cause an impaction. Carrots are also a common culprit in cases of choke, especially if they are not sliced lengthwise. A circular disc of carrot is just the ideal size and shape to block the oesophagus
Choke can be caused by the horse eating too quickly. Some horses are greedy and will come into the stable and virtually ‘inhale’ hay or feed, without chewing sufficiently, and a case of choke can occur as a result. Other horses might bolt their feed due to competition if they are fed in a group out in a field
Poor dentition can also contribute towards the occurrence of choke, as feed is not being chewed sufficiently before being swallowed
Inadequate water intake can also lead to choke
There is a risk of choke occurring after a horse has been sedated if they are allowed access to hay before the sedative has fully worn off
What to do if your horse has choke
1. Keep calm – It is easy to panic when your horse appears distressed with food and saliva pouring out of their nostrils. Don’t forget choke is classed by vets as a minor emergency, and that your horse can still breathe
2. Call your vet – It might be necessary for your vet to visit if the choke does not resolve on its own
3. Remove all food and water from the stable – It is unlikely that your horse will try and eat but you don’t want to add to the impaction any further
4. Gentle walking – To help relax horse (and owner!) you can gently walk the horse and encourage their head down which will aid clearing the blockage
It might be necessary for your vet to sedate the horse, give a muscle relaxant, and pain killers may also be necessary. In some cases, a nasogastric tube may be passed to clear the choke and antibiotics may be given as well. There is a risk of secondary pneumonia occurring after a case of choke, so it is sensible to consult with your vet in all cases.