Dealing With Choke In Horses
What is it?
Choke is when there is an obstruction in the horse's throat (the esophagus) such that food and water can't pass through to the stomach. (Insert vision of trying to do the Heimlich Maneuver on a 1000+ pound animal...) Actually choke isn't a laughing matter. It can be life-threatening.
What are the signs?
Choking differs from strangling. Horses that are choking will probably not have any trouble breathing. However most will show some sort of discharge coming out of their nose. This discharge is often bits of feed mixed with water and/or saliva. Some horses will show considerable pain and distress, perhaps arching their neck and trying to retch (although horses can't vomit). Occasionally you'll see a lump on the side of the neck where the esophagus is blocked.
What causes it?
Choke is caused when a horse tries to swallow feed that hasn't been chewed enough or tries to swallow a foreign object. This can happen:
when a horse is changed to a new type of food (such as switching from hay to pellets or cubes),
when feed is too dry (such as being fed dry hay in a trailer, but with no access to water),
when a horse eats too fast (such as when many horses are fed together and some eat rapidly in order to be sure they get their share),
when a horse eats a foreign object (such as a cribber swallowing a piece of wood), or
when there is something wrong with the horse's mouth or esophagus (such as poor teeth or damage to the esophagus).
What can you do?
Call your veterinarian immediately! Although it may not seem like an emergency, it can turn into a life-threatening problem. While waiting for the vet's arrival, place your horse in an unbedded stall with no food or water. You don't want to compound the problem by allowing him to eat or drink. The vet may try to confirm the diagnosis by passing a stomach tube down the esophagus. Occasionally she will need to resort to x-rays.
Although your horse is probably not in imminent danger of dying, within a few hours serious complications can develop which can lead to death. Pneumonia can result if backed-up food, water, or saliva flows into the trachea and lungs. Additionally a persistent choke can result in damage to the esophagus. The esophagus can rupture or it can develop scar tissue that narrows the passage. Such a narrowed esophagus can lead to additional episodes of choke.
Prompt treatment can mean the difference between a good outcome and possible death. The vet will want to know the nature of the obstruction to determine the best treatment options and so may need to pass an endoscope to attempt to see the obstruction. Some choke may be helped by keeping the horse in an unbedded stall with no food or water for a few hours. Often a sedative or tranquilizer to relax the horse may help to pass the object into the stomach.
Another possible option is to pass small amounts of warm water through a stomach tube to try to break up the obstruction. This must be done carefully as the tube itself can damage the lining of the esophagus or the water can be aspirated into the lungs.
The most stubborn choke may require surgery. In each case, the vet may want to recheck the horse over the following days because of the possibility of pneumonia. She may also begin an antibiotic treatment just in case.
How do you prevent it?
These are fairly simple changes in management, especially considering the difficulty of treatment and the possibility of long-term problems.
Feed your horse(s) in such a way to discourage bolting food. Some ideas include more frequent feeding, providing plenty of feeder space when horses are fed in a herd situation, and placing large rocks or salt blocks in feed racks to make the horse eat around it. Just make sure the rock is big enough that the horse won't swallow it!
Make any changes in feed gradually.
Make certain fresh, clean water is always available.
Keep your horse's environment cleaned of foreign material, such as twine, wire, and small bits of wood or metal.
Cut treats, such as apples and carrots, into small pieces before feeding to horses.