One of the most distressing conditions for an owner to witness is an episode of choke.
Fortunately choke in horses refers to an obstruction of their food pipe (oeseophagus), as apposed to the windpipe and therefore is very rarely life threatening.It is quite a common condition and occurs when food blocks the oesophagus, which is the pipe that connects the back of the mouth with the stomach.
Most commonly choke occurs as result of a horse swallowing food that is either too dry (usually hay), that swells once chewed (unsoaked sugarbeet) or occasionally if a greedy horse gulps down large mouthfuls of food without properly chewing the food. This results in the oesophagus becoming blocked. Sometimes choke can occur as a result of a foreign body (piece of baler twine), or if the horse is unable to chew its food properly (dental disease).
The blockage of normal passage of food down the oesophagus results in the backflow of food and saliva back up the oesophagus.
- Saliva and food from nostrils/mouth
- Gulping and repeated swallowing
- Coughing and gagging
What to do?
Remove all food and water. Most cases of choke resolve uneventfully when the horse relaxes. This will be associated with the discharge from the nose stopping and the horse will become more settled and relaxed. Massaging the left side of the neck will help to ease the discomfort and help to reduce spasm of the oesophagus.
If the symptoms persist for over fifteen minutes then contact the practice on 01562 701334 to arrange an urgent visit.
Initial treatment consists of sedation, muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories to resolve the spasm and obstruction. If this fails to resolve the impaction, we will sedate the horse more heavily, and a tube will be passed to the level of the obstruction and water used to lavage the obstruction clear.
If this fails to resolve it then sometimes we will use the gastroscope (camera) to visualise the obstruction) to help assist in resolving it. Following clearance of the obstruction we will often recommend starving the horse for a period of 12 hours, then continue with sloppy feeds or grass for several days to reduce any stress or pressure on the eoesophagus.
Although the majority of cases of choke resolve either without treatment or with the use of muscle relaxants, a small number of cases can result in very serious life threatening complications. Rupture or damage to the oeseophagus can occur either as a direct result of the obstruction or following attempts to dislodge it. If complete rupture has occurred this may result in euthanasia, however even superficial damage to the oesophageal wall can result in scarring and recurrent choke. If the horse panics and breathes in food material it is possible for the horse to develop pneumonia as a consequence. This may resolve with antibiotics, however occasionally can be fatal.
Ensure that all dried feed is soaked thoroughly as per the manufacturer’s instructions to enure they are fully swollen before eating. Regular dental care to ensure chewing is thorough and complete. The placing of a large brick or rocks in a food bowl may slow rapid, greedy feeders from taking in large mouthfuls of feed. Ensure continuous access to fresh water.