• Choke in Horses.

    A few weeks ago my 2 year old, Lacey, got choke. She had completed bolted her food (fibre cubes and balancer) and it got stuck. After about half an hour of discomfort, she managed to clear it and went about her business as normal.

    Last weekend, it happened again but this time was a bit more dramatic. She was unable to clear it herself which resulted in a visit from the vet who had to use lavage (passing a stomach tube down the oesophagus and flushing with water) to remove the blockage.

    For those that don’t know about choke, I thought I would write a blog post about it as it is fairly common and horse owners should be aware of the signs/symptoms and what to do when it occurs.

    Choke in horses, is just as it says, they are choking, but in horses choke can be quite different to when a human chokes.When a human chokes, the airway usually becomes blocked, this, if the blockage is not removed fairly quickly, can lead to death within a pretty short space of time. When a horse chokes, it blocks the oesophagus (food pipe), but the horse is usually still able to breathe so there does not tend to be the immediate risk as in when a human chokes.

    Whereas gagging/retching can often clear a human blockage, the horse does not have a gag reflex and cannot vomit, so along with coughing, it will arch it’s neck to try and physically clear the oesophagus. The muscles of the oesophagus will also go into spasm and start contracting in an effort to remove the blockage and this can be quite dramatic and distressing for both horse and owner.

    So, what are the symptoms of choke? Usually the horse will stop eating and will look ‘uncomfortable’ and often quite distressed. You will notice the neck extending, along with muscle spasms and as previously mentioned, this can be quite dramatic. There may be some coughing and often the food will start to come down the nostrils, along with saliva and other mucus as the blockage starts to clear. Again, this can be quite a distressing sight for owners. Some horses also display signs of colic, this is due to the fact that they are in pain and discomfort and don’t know what to do with themselves, but the presence of the other symptoms will usually distinguish choke from colic.

    What do you do if you think your horse has choke? Obviously the first port of call should be your vet. But, often, if it’s obviously choke, then initially it’s just a waiting game. Most horses will manage to clear themselves within about half an hour but if after a couple of hours your horse does not, then veterinary intervention may be required. The vet will usually administer an antispasmodic to try and relax the oesophagus. Sometimes this is all that is required, but occasionally it’s necessary to sedate the horse and pass a stomach tube down the throat. This is then flushed with water to try and break up the blockage. This process is called ‘lavage’. They will usually administer antibiotics too as there is a risk of aspiration pneumonia with choke. Aspiration pneumonia is caused by some of the ‘debris’ being breathed into the lungs and causing an infection.

    Causes of choke. Choke can be caused by several things. Often, it’s caused by greedy horses/ponies bolting their food. They don’t chew it properly so it tends to get stuck. Horses with poor dentition (teeth) can also get choke. Again, the food isn’t chewed properly and gets blocked. Some horses don’t cope very well with dry food and this can cause them too choke too.

    Preventing choke. There are a few ways to help prevent choke. If your horse is particularly greedy, you can put a large block of wood (or similar) in the bottom of their bucket to prevent them from taking huge mouthfuls of food. If dry food is the problem, adding some water can help it go down easier. Also, always make sure that your horse has regular dental checks (every 6-12 months, depending on circumstances) so that they are able to chew their food properly.


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