Friday, 18 March 2016

All About ... Choke.

What is it?

As with all animals (and humans) this is when the oesophagus becomes obstructed by food or a foreign body.  The oesophagus is the tube which takes the food from the mouth to the stomach.


  • Horse is distressed and may panic initially 
  • Difficulty swallowing 
  • Coughs 
  • Salivates 
  • Paws the ground 
  • Bending and stretching the neck 
  • Grunts 
  • Food and saliva may be regurgitated through the nostrils 
  • Horse refuses to eat 
  • May be a visible lump on the left side of the neck 
  • Horse will become depressed and dehydrated if left untreated 
  • In serious cases the oesophagus can rupture causing shock, infection and death (this is uncommon)


Horses that 'bolt' their food, which means they eat too fast and don't chew it properly are more susceptible to choke.  If food is too dry or too course (often hay) or swells rapidly once chewed (sugarbeet - if not soaked properly) then its journey down the oesophagus will be slowed or may stop altogether!  If a horse is in a condition which will affect its ability to swallow then this can make choke more likely.  This can happen if a horse is recovering from being sedated or has suffered an injury to the neck or oesophagus but can also be more likely if the horse has botulism or grass sickness.  Horses with teeth abnormalities can also be more likely to have this problem.  Foreign objects such as pieces of wood, wire or nails can also become lodged in the oesophagus if eaten.    


The blockage will often clear on its own but if not then it is important to call the vet as the risk of complications will increase with time.  You may be able to feel or see the blockage in the side of the oesophagus.

The vet may pass a stomach tube via the nostril to confirm that there is a blockage and where it is.  This will also help to identify if it is solid and/or can be gently 'encouraged' to continue its journey.


As mentioned earlier often the obstruction will clear on its own because of the saliva produced thus lubricating the food.  However, if the horse continues to choke call the vet.  Do not allow the horse to drink because the water may go into the lungs instead - causing pneumonia.  There is also a risk that the horse will inhale the food and saliva whilst choking, this will also cause pneumonia.  Keep him quiet with no food and ideally his head low to help the saliva to drain.  If you can feel the lump on the left side of the neck a gentle massage may help shift the blockage.

Often sedative injections given by the vet will help the horse to relax and is all that is needed.   In some choke situations the horse can be sedated and the oesophagus flushed - this will help soften and hopefully will move the blockage - but this MUST be done carefully to ensure the water does not enter the lungs! 

An intravenous drip may be needed if the horse has become dehydrated.   In severe situations a general anaesthetic will be given to allow for surgical removal of the blockage.
Once the obstruction has been cleared the horse should only be fed sloppy food or grass for several days whilst the swelling goes down. 


Make sure your horse's teeth are checked at least annually by a qualified Equine Dental Technician.  If there are dental abnormalities they are likely to need more frequent checks.  Sharp edges to the teeth can stop a horse chewing properly.  Ensure water is always available so that horses can drink normally when they want.  Feeding hay in a small holed haynet will help to slow a greedy horse and add water to hard feed to soften it.  Many people suggest adding large stones to bucket feeds so that the horse has to sort around them and cannot take large mouthfuls!  If food eg: sugarbeet is supposed to be soaked then ensure that you do for the required time.  Make sure apples and carrots are cut up longways and not into rings - as these are more difficult to chew.

Have you seen Wednesday's video 'How to ... Worm Egg Counts'  on my You Tube channel.   
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Until next time!


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