Choke is a pretty common condition which is distressing for the horse and very frightening for the owner.
What is choke?
Choke happens when food or a foreign body partially or completely blocks the horse's gullet (oesophagus); the tube through which food passes from the back of the mouth en route to the stomach. A horse has no vomit reflex and is therefore unable to remove the blockage himself. He will quickly become extremely uncomfortable and there is a risk of dehydration if the obstruction is not removed promptly. Although it's rare, there is also the chance that the oesophagus could rupture placing the horse at risk of death from infection or shock.
Causes of choke
Choke usually occurs when a horse swallows food which is too dry, usually hay, or unsoaked sugar beet which then swells rapidly as soon as it becomes dampened by the horse's saliva. Greedy horses who bolt eat hay or straw without chewing it properly are prone to suffering episodes of choke. Choke can also be caused by other conditions which interfere with the horse's swallowing reflex. These include; botulism, grass sickness, trauma and even sedation.
How to recognise the signs of choke
When a horse has choke, the first giveaway is food coming from his nostrils and/or his mouth and this is often accompanied by froth and saliva. Often there will be a gurgling sound, caused by excessive amounts of saliva. Some horses will become distressed and begin to panic, making repeated unsuccessful attempts to swallow and will often cough or gag. Sometimes the horse will stand with his neck stretched out and will appear depressed.
Always summon veterinary assistance if your horse is choking, particularly if he appears to have been suffering for a long time. The vet will confirm diagnosis, probably by inserting a stomach tube into the oesophagus. He will also be able to determine where the blockage is and whether it will be possible to gently encourage it on its way to the stomach.
The horse continually produces saliva in his mouth and sometimes this will lubricate the obstruction sufficiently to allow it to move on down the oesophagus and into the stomach. Often the vet will administer a spasmolytic drug to relax the oesophagus and this may allow the blockage to clear naturally.
If this is unsuccessful, it may be possible to massage the obstruction until it breaks up enough to pass on its way to the stomach. A stomach tube may be inserted to try to break up the obstruction or it may be flushed through with water and lubricant. If the horse is particularly distressed or uncooperative, it may be necessary to sedate or even anaesthetise him in order to carry out the procedure without risk of damage to the oesophagus.
Once the blockage has been cleared, the vet will want to keep an eye on the horse in case he has inhaled any foreign bodies into his lungs which could cause pneumonia. For the next few days, sloppy food or grass should be given to allow any swelling chance to settle down.
Always have your horse's teeth checked regularly by a properly qualified equine dentist or by your vet. If the teeth are sharp, your horse may experience discomfort while he's eating and will not be able to chew his food properly which could lead to choke.
If you feed dry rations, always make sure you damp them sufficiently before feeding and soak dried feedstuffs like sugar beet pulp thoroughly. You should make sure that your horse has access to plenty of clean, fresh water at all times.
If your horse is inclined to become anxious and bolt his food, feed him when the yard is quiet so that he's more relaxed. Feed haylage and hay in special haylage nets with extra-small holes to prevent him scoffing too much in one mouthful. Always slice carrots, apples and the like into small, lengthways slivers or grate them into pulp to be mixed with his feed so that he can't swallow one whole and choke on it.
Disclaimer: Of Horse! and sponsors do not endorse nor validate the accuracy of a blog post. Each article is the opinion of the blogger.