Common Equine Emergencies – Choke

Holly McFadzean BVMS MRCVS explains more about what to do if your horse has choke, and how it can be prevented. Read more.

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Choke is an obstruction of the oesophagus by a foreign body, usually a food bolus. The horse will be unable to swallow, however, the airway will be unaffected so although the horse may appear distressed they are still able to breathe. Holly McFadzean BVMS MRCVS explains more about Choke and how it can be prevented.

How Do You Know Your Horse Has Choke?

A choking horse will have saliva and food material coming from its nostrils and mouth. The horse will tend to cough and make gagging noises with their head and neck outstretched whilst making unsuccessful attempts to swallow. Some horses get very panicked and distressed although others will appear quiet and dull.

What Should You Do If Your Horse Has Choke?

If your horse appears to be choking the first step is to put it in it’s stable with access to water but no food. Monitor for signs of improvement for half an hour as quite often, chokes will resolve on their own. If the choke continues call the vets and while waiting for them to arrive you can try to massage around the throat area and neck to help dislodge the obstruction. You can also attempt to drench them with a fizzy drink. Using a plastic bottle, put it in the side of their mouth and lift their head, it will be a bit messy but can be very helpful in dislodging the blockage.

If the choke still has not resolved when the vet arrives they will sedate the horse and give some anti-inflammatory and muscle relaxant medication. When necessary passing a stomach tube and flushing warm water until the obstruction is cleared. Occasionally this will be unsuccessful and at this point an endoscopic examination is very useful as in rare cases there will be a foreign body such as a stick or twig which will not be cleared by flushing and may require surgical removal.

What Happens Once The Choke Has Been Resolved?

Once the choke has been cleared the horse will still be sedated and so needs to remain in the stable with no food for about an hour. If stomach tubing was required to clear the obstruction there is a small risk of your horse developing pneumonia as a result of breathing in small amounts of food and saliva. To reduce this risk we will leave them on a course of antibiotics.

If possible, it is very sensible to monitor your horse’s temperature for a few weeks as well as being very vigilant for any signs of coughing or changes in breathing. There is also a small risk of horses developing swelling around the site of obstruction which can cause further choke episodes. To prevent this the vet may also prescribe a course of anti-inflammatories. Feed soft feed and grass for 48hours after the choke episode and please contact your vet immediately if you are worried about your horse.

Preventing Further Choke Episodes

Keeping up to date with routine dental work will ensure your horse is chewing adequately and therefore less likely to swallow large mouthfuls of food. Make sure all hard feed requiring soaking is soaked fully, especially things like sugar beet, which will swell if eaten dry.

A common reason for a horse to choke is that greedy horses eat too quickly, techniques to slow then down include double netting, placing large bricks in feed bowls or splitting large feeds into multiple bowls at opposite corners of the stable.

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