Choke in Horses
Up there on my top ten list of scary things that can happen with horses is choke. If you’ve never witnessed this ordeal with a horse, you’re fortunate! The first time I dealt with choke was years ago with my first barrel racing horse, Dee. I remember seeing her in distress right after I fed the horses, and then greenish-yellowish foam began coming out of her nose and mouth. My mom called the vet, but by the time he got there, Dee had recovered. It was a terrifying experience though and one I’ll never forget.
I didn’t know exactly what choke was back then, but I do now. And unfortunately, I’ve experienced it several more times in the last few years with two other horses.
What is Choke?
Choke in horses is not the same as choking in people. It does occur when the horse eats, but it’s not the airway that becomes blocked (horses are obligate nasal breathers), but the esophagus instead.
Since the horse can still breathe, it’s not technically an immediate emergency, but choke can lead to life-threatening complications such as aspiration pneumonia or rupture of the esophagus.
Choke can occur with feed, hay, or some other type of object such as shavings . In my experience, it’s occurred with pelleted feed and hay pellets.
Why are some horses more prone to choke?
It’s become obvious to me that some horses are more prone to choke than others. Older horses with dental problems are more likely to choke. So are those who tend to eat quickly (the ones who act like their starving to death. . . like a couple of mine.)
Certain types of feed can also increase the likelihood of choke. Large pellets, cubes, dry beet pulp, and treats are examples. If you have a horse that is prone to choke, you may want to go with other options.
Symptoms of Choke
You’re likely going to notice if your horse is choking. In my experience, the horse with choke has laid down in their stall right after starting to eat. This alerted me right away. They also tend to hold their head and neck out, paw, or show other signs of distress.
They may drool or have nasal discharge (especially if they’ve attempted to drink) and you may see food particles mixed in with the mucus. If the object is large enough (such as a hay cube), you may be able to feel or see it along the left side of the neck.
If the condition has been going on for some time though, the horse will likely be dehydrated and depressed. The longer it’s been going on, the more likely complications can arise–so call your vet!
Treatment for Choke
When my horses have choked, it has usually been mild and they were able to pass the lodged food within a few minutes. On one occasion though, Bob was in extreme distress and kept laying down. I called my vet and he headed my way. But then, Bob recovered and was fine. The whole experience lasted probably fifteen minutes.
If your horse experiences choke, you will want to remove all food and water and try to keep them calm. Gently massaging the esophagus to break up the food might help.
If you know for certain that the horse choked on feed or hay and the horse recovers fairly quickly, he will likely be okay. It’s certainly fine to have him checked out by the vet just in case though. Aspiration pneumonia is still a possibility.
However, if the horse doesn’t recover quickly or if you aren’t certain of what he choked on, he definitely needs to evaluated by a vet. Sedation or esophageal lavages may be needed to help pass the object. Foreign objects that the horse may not be able to digest will need to be removed via an incision in the esophagus.
If the horse has been choked for a long period of time (apparently, it can last for days), the vet may need to check for damage to the esophagus using an endoscope.
Although choke is definitely a scary thing to witness, it has not caused complications in any of my horses. Since I hadn’t had any problems with choke (in recent years) until I began feeding hay pellets (even soaked), I decided to switch my horses to another low starch feed (Purina Wellsolve L/S) for my carrier feed. I would caution anyone feeding hay pellets, cubes, or beet pulp to make sure you thoroughly soak the feed to reduce the likelihood of choke.