What is choke?
At this time of year we are called out to a lot of horses suffering from choke. Choke occurs when a horse get a ball of food stuck in their oesophagus (food pipe). Unlike when humans choke it is not the horses windpipe that is blocked and they can still breath comfortably. Choke often occurs after a horse eats a bowl of food however can also occur at pasture or from eating hay. Generally it is due to horses ‘bolting’ their feed and as a result not chewing properly. Occasionally it is due to a horse consuming food that is meant to be soaked but has not been, such as sugarbeet, or large pieces of solid foods, commonly carrots.
What are the symptoms of choke?
Often the first thing owners see is their horse standing with a tense, stretched out neck, and they may appear to be gagging; this is actually them attempting to swallow. Commonly there is saliva draining from the nostrils, often containing small amounts of food. Some horses can get very distressed and show signs associated with colic such as sweating and pawing the ground.
What should you do if your horse shows signs of choke?
At this point it is best to give the practice a call and one of our vets can either give advice over the phone or, if necessary, arrange a visit. Firstly remove all food from the vicinity and leave the horse to stand still in a calm environment, ideally with their head lowered. Plenty of cases will resolve quickly as their neck muscles relax and the blockage slides down to the stomach. If the horse continues to choke over 1-2 hours a vet visit will be required and medication given. In some cases the vet may need to pass a tube up the nose in order to clear the blockage.
How can I reduce the risk of my horse having choke?
The mainstay of preventing choke is to increase the time it takes for your horse to eat its food in order to allow time for them to chew properly. Putting water in feeds to make them more ‘sloppy’ and placing large rocks that they have to eat around can slow them down. Carrots can be sliced lengthways. Giving a small haynet before a bowl of food may also ensure they are less hungry and more likely to take their time.
Lastly horses with dental problems are much more likely to choke due to not chewing their food properly so it is important to have your horses teeth checked at least once a year. Horses with dental problems will often require more regular checks. See our equine dental page for further details on our dental visits.