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Equine Choke; What Happens & How to Manage It

Choke in horses and ponies is often easy to recognise, as usually, signs will start soon after the horse begins eating. An affected horse will begin to tense his neck and show a gag / cough like symptom when he attempts to swallow. As a choke progresses it is not uncommon to see a large amount of saliva (which can be discoloured green or brown by food material) being expelled from the nostrils with each gag. Horses with choke will stop eating and drinking, stand very still and can appear dull. Kristen Holland (BVetMed (Hons) MRCVS) from Paragon Equine in Cumbria, explains this distressing condition.

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Choke is caused when a blockage forms in the oesophagus. Unlike in humans, the blockage is not in the windpipe and horses are able to breathe without difficulty whilst choking. Blockages are usually caused when horses eat hard feed too quickly, or eat dry feed which should be soaked. Choke can also be caused if horses eat too soon after being sedated or if a horse is chewing food inadequately due to dental issues. A choking horse cannot eat or drink so it is important that the choke is solved as soon as possible.

The best treatment for a choke is for a vet to sedate the horse as soon as possible. This allows the musculature surrounding the oesophagus to relax and will facilitate passing of the impacted feed material. If sedation is not sufficient to pass the choke, then a stomach tube will need to be passed in via the nose and down the oesophagus. The tube will reach the impacted material and then will not be able to pass further. If the choke is well formed then it will need to be removed by syphoning feed material off via the stomach tube. This is achieved by adding water to the stomach tube and then allowing the water to drain back out with some of the choke material. This will need to be repeated until all the feed material forming the choke has been removed. With a well formed choke this process can take a very prolonged period of time.

The horse will then be treated with a course of anti-inflammatory drugs to give pain relief whilst the inflammation in the oesophagus reduces, often along with a course of antibiotics. These antibiotics are only necessary when a choke has been particularly severe and are provided in case of an aspiration pneumonia infection developing, which potentially results when any food material may have entered the horse’s lungs.

How to prevent choke
Choke is best prevented by ensuring all hard feed offered is soft and well soaked prior to feeding, and that the horse is never starved for prolonged periods, so doesn’t bolt his feed down too quickly. If choke recurs, the horse’s teeth should be checked to assess for any reason why an affected horse horse might not be chewing his feed effectively.

In cases of choke, the vet should always be called as soon as signs are noted. Whilst a horse is choking he cannot eat or drink and can loose a large amount of saliva. This can mean that he will easily and quickly become dehydrated without resolution of the choke.

Prognosis following an incident of choke is generally very good, even in severe cases. Choke rarely recurs unless there is a reason (such as poor dentition) for the choke to have occurred. Horses recover very well from cases of choke and as long as the correct precautions are taken, there are very rarely any consequences seen from an incident of choke.


Paragon Equine - Cumbria

Article by Kristen Holland, BVetMed (Hons) MRCVS, Paragon Equine.
Tel: 01768 483789
Email: Paragon Equine, Newbiggin, Cumbria
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