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Understanding Choke!

Tracy Soward-Amalfi: Equine Nutritionist

Choke is a term that describes a partial or complete blockage of the oesophagus. The horse is then unable to get enough food and water into the digestive system. This condition can cause death if perforation of the oesophagus or degeneration of tissue occurs due to continued pressure.

There are a number of things that may cause choke. Horses can choke on feed such as grain, dry hay, lush grass and concentrates. Some horses are more prone to choke than others due to abnormal growths or structure of the oesophagus. Shetland ponies are especially prone to choke as they have a very small and narrow oesophagus. Greedy eaters and horses with poor teeth that do not moisten and chew their food adequately may frequently develop choke.

When the oesophagus is blocked by feed or other material inflammation does not usually occur for a day or two. However irregularly shaped foreign objects can cause severe irritation and inflammation rapidly contribute to the blockage? Swelling that accompanies inflammation and oesophageal spasms make it very difficult to remove and relieve the obstruction. The oesophagus may rupture if inflammation continues and weakens the tissues.

Signs of Choke

  • Horse may appear distressed or anxious.
  • Horse may make repeated motions with the head and neck, arching the neck and then drawing the chin back to the chest.
  • Extending the head towards the ground.
  • Shaking the head and pacing.
  • Characteristically the horse will drool saliva and a mixture of food and saliva appears at the nostrils.
  • If choke does not clear up in 18-36 hours the horse will become depressed and stops trying to swallow.
  • Horse may stand at a water source and slosh and sip water that returns through the nose.
  • Colic, diarrhea, respiratory infections are frequently associated with choke
  • Pneumonia and dehydration may accompany chronic choke.

How is Choke treated?

Your veterinarian will try to determine what is causing the obstruction and decide on appropriate treatment.The vet may attempt to pass a stomach tube to push the obstruction down to the stomach. If the stomach tube passes through the area of the obstruction then it may indicate that a foreign body, growth and will usually require surgery to remove. Food masses may be loosened up by repeated attempts to pass a stomach tube or pumping in water to help moisten and break up the obstruction. Chronic choke may require intravenous fluids to re-hydrate the horse and muscle relaxants may be prescribed to help relieve spasms.

How can Choke be prevented?

Horses that are prone to choke may be feed soaked feeds. Greedy eaters can be slowed down by placing large smooth stones in the feed bin. Ensure that fresh water is available at all times. Dry coarse hay should be avoided and the teeth need to be properly maintained.In drought times ensure that the horse has access to adequate roughage such as hay or round bales to minimize the horse gorging hard feeds due to hunger.