Just like in humans, choke in horses is a serious issue; however, because of the difference in anatomy, choke presents differently in horses.
When a person is choking, there is something that is obstructing their airway, but in horses, the airway remains clear, while the esophagus, the tube that runs from the mouth to stomach, is blocked.
While a horse is choking, they remain able to breathe, making it a less dire situation, but choke is still a serious problem. In horses, a slug of feed material becomes caught in the esophagus. Horses who are choking will show signs of distress, retching, coughing, create large volumes of saliva and, in severe cases, you may find feed material coming from the nostrils.
Horses can choke on any feed material, including grass, hay or feeds. You are most likely to notice your horse choking on feed because you will be in the barn during feeding time. In some cases, horses will be able to clear a minor choke just by coughing, but more serious cases will require vet intervention.
While waiting for your vet to arrive, keep your horse as calm as possible and remove sources of feed and water. The treatment for choke will vary case by case, but the general approach is to combine the use of sedation to relax the muscles around the blockage and the use of a nasogastric tube to physically clear the obstruction.
After an episode of choke, the horse will need to be closely monitored. The two main complications are the irritation and swelling of the esophagus and the risk of developing pneumonia due to the aspiration of feed particles into the lungs while the horse is choking. Your veterinarian may prescribe medications to address these potential complications.
Slow reintroduction of feed is recommended after a choke episode, with a focus on small quantities that are easy for the horse to swallow. Oftentimes, feed will not be reintroduced for several days and when it is, it will be offered in a soupy mash.
The fundamental reason a horse will choke on a feed (or other feedstuff), initially, is that the horse does not chew the feed properly and therefore, there isn’t enough saliva produced to allow the feed to slide smoothly down the esophagus. The two primary reasons a horse does not chew their feed sufficiently are rapid feed consumption, often called bolting, and dental issues.
Horses will bolt their feed due to a variety of reasons, many of which are due to feeling anxiety at feeding time due to real or perceived competition for feed. For this reason, horses are more likely to choke when fed in groups. Even when horses are fed individually, a horse showing feed aggression on the opposite side of a partition may cause a horse to bolt their feed.
An examination of the horse’s mouth after a choke incident is a good practice, even if they have had a recent float. There are a number of issues that can create mouth pain that lead to improper chewing. The condition of the horse’s mouth is best observed under sedation with use of a speculum.
Once a horse has a history of previous choke episodes, they may develop scar tissue due to the swelling and irritation of the esophagus. The presence of scar tissue increases the risk that a horse will experience choke again. The horse can be scoped to determine the extent of scar tissue present, which can help in determining an appropriate feeding management strategy going forward.
Some general advice to reduce the likelihood of choke are frequent dental exams and removing feed competition, real or perceived. For horses in the habit of bolting their feed, regardless of management changes, you can implement strategies to slow down their consumption. Feeding concentrate meals as a very soupy mash or adding large smooth stones or salt licks to the feed pan are two options. Sometimes, a change in feed texture can be helpful as well, either from a pellet to a textured feed or choosing a pelleted feed with a softer consistency.
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