Choke in Horses: Emergency Handling and Prevention
By: Darlene M. Cox
Choke is, as its name implies, a condition that occurs when the esophagus of a horse becomes blocked by a substance (normally poorly-chewed and hastily swallowed grain or hay, but can also include pieces of wood/bark, or other debris the horse may get in its mouth) and renders the horse unable to swallow and breathe properly. Choke can be caused by eager eaters that eat their food quickly, with ineffective chewing. Also, poor dental health will prevent a horse from properly chewing its food. It can occur in horses of all ages. It is a serious condition that can be fatal and requires immediate veterinary assistance.
Choke can present itself either as chronic (multiple occurrences) or acute (occurring occasionally). A horse that has choked more than once is predisposed to develop an acute susceptibility, as each incidence of choke weakens a portion of the esophagus.
You can identify choke if your horse displays some or all of the following indicators:
- Appearance of foodstuffs coming from the nostrils (regurgitation)
- Frequent attempts at swallowing
- Excessive salivation
- Colic-like symptoms of sweating and distress (wild-eyed appearance, slinging of head, constant working of the mouth, etc.)
- The appearance of a palatable mass in the upper part of the neck (where the upper esophagus lies).
Anyone who has witnessed choke can tell you how unnerving it is to see your horse experience this condition. The following are steps to take when you discover your horse is choking:
- Stay calm; don't panic.
- Call your veterinarian immediately and definitively advise him that your horse is experiencing choke. This will light a fire under them to get them to your barn quickly.
- Remove all food items and water from the area your horse is in (stall, paddock, etc.)
- Keep your horse calm. If possible, move him to a quiet place.
- Do not attempt to dislodge the mass of food from the esophagus, because you could exacerbate the problem by damaging the esophagus or by diverting the blockage into the lungs, which would cause pneumonia to develop. As hard as it is to watch your horse in distress, leave the treatment for your veterinarian to professionally undertake.
Once your veterinarian arrives he will administer a tranquilizer/sedative to calm your horse. He will then insert a tube into the horse's mouth, through which water will be flushed to dislodge the object.
Prevention is key and measures can be easily implemented into your feeding regimen for horses prone to choke or to simply prevent any of your horses from developing Choke:
- For overzealous eaters, place a few fist-sized rocks (about 6" - 8" in diameter) in the feed trough. This will require your horse to slow down his eating as he moves the rocks around the feed pan to get to the grain.
- Soak pelleted feed in water to expand their size and soften their consistency.
- Break up hay cubes and/or soak them in water to make them easier to chew and swallow.
- Cut apples, carrots, pears, etc. into small slices, not large hunks, quarters, halves, or wholes.
Staying ever vigilant to your horse's behavior and following wise husbandry guidelines will keep your horses healthy and choke free.