Would you recognize choke in your horse?
The word choke is a bit of a misnomer in the horse. In people it refers to an obstruction of the trachea or windpipe, usually with a piece of food. In horses the obstruction is of the esophagus not of the airway. This means that usually choke in horses is not immediately life threatening, however long term complications can result if the choke does not resolve on its own or is not treated in a timely fashion.
What causes choke?
Choke can be caused by many different types of feed. Most commonly grain or hay, but beet pulp, corn cobs, apples and carrots have been implicated as well. Horses choke on feed either because the feed is too large to pass down the esophagus, such as with a large apple or carrot, or because the feed expanded after being wet with saliva and swallowed in too large an amount, such as with beet pulp or grain. If choke is caused by hay it is likely due to a large portion of the hay being swallowed without sufficient breakdown, or chewing, prior to swallowing.
What does choke look like in the horse?
The most common sign of choke is a large amount of saliva or feed discharge from both nostrils due to the horse’s inability to swallow. The horse may repeatedly extend their neck, cough, and gag and make attempts to swallow. Sometimes if the obstruction is large enough and is located in the upper esophagus it can be seen and/or palpated on examination.
What predisposes horses to choke?
The most common reason for choke in horses is poor dentition. If there are missing teeth or dental issues such as a wave mouth or teeth that are too worn to chew properly this can result in improper feed breakdown prior to swallowing. That being said we occasionally run across horses that have normal teeth that just eat too fast for their own good! Regardless of the inciting cause of the choke often we have to modify the diet or modify the feeding process in some way to try and help prevent re-occurrence.
How do I treat it?
If you notice these signs in your horse it is very important to call your veterinarian. The sooner the choke is treated the less of a chance there is of complications. Treatment includes sedation to help relax the horse and the esophagus and passing a tube to help pass or flush out the obstruction. Other treatments can include pain medication, anti-inflammatory medication, antibiotics and oftentimes oral rehydration as the horse was unable to eat or drink while choked. Your veterinarian will likely determine which treatments are required depending on the type of choke and the length of time the horse has been choked.