General Information

Choke is an compaction of feed in the esophagus or obstruction of the esophagus, usually caused by a bolus or lump of food. It is not a tracheal (windpipe) obstruction, which impairs breathing. Your horse cannot swallow but can still breath normally. Patience is important so please remain calm. Most chokes resolve spontaneously within a few minutes. If a choke persists for more than 20 minutes, or if you are unsure as to how long the horse has been obstructed, please call our office for assistance. Timely treatment is very important due significant irritation caused by the feed material lodged within the esophagus and can even lead to severe erosion of the mucosal surface of the esophagus and muscle damage.  Also the longer a choke is allowed to go untreated, the greater the risk of aspiration pneumonia.  Horses cannot vomit (not really-horses cannot vomit) so therefore cannot force the feed backwards and out.  It must go down.

Common signs of choke:

  • Food or food-stained saliva exiting both nostrils
  • Distress and possible colic signs
  • Intense Coughing
  • Suddenly stops eating or refuses to graze
  • Tensing of the throat muscles-that resembles vomiting or regurgitation but is NOT
  • Seemed fine when you first fed him but after a few bites the previous signs occur.

Important Points in Treatment:

Remove all feed and water.

Keep your horse in stall or paddock free of any bedding, feed and water so your horse cannot eat, as any food could slide down the open windpipe, causing aspiration pneumonia.

Once the vet arrives, the patient is usually given a mild tranquilizer to calm and relax the spasms in the esophagus. A nasogastric tube is gently and carefully passed into the esophagus and the blockage is lavaged clear of the esophagus. This can take minutes or hours depending upon the severity and source of the obstruction. Softer feeds like pellets or sweet feed usually do not take as long to relieve compared to bedding, hay or other foreign objects (including large chunks of apples or carrots).

It is standard for most all patients that are treated for a choke to also be given an anti-inflammatory and antibiotic to relieve irritation and pain as well as prevent an aspiration pneumonia.

Aspiration pneumonia is on the most common complications of a choke. It can be quite costly to treat a full blown case of aspiration pneumonia. It is much more economical to seek immediate professional care and most likely, prevent this complication.

After the choke has been resolved, provide no food for 24 hrs, then soft, mushy feed, such as bran mash or soaked Senior feed for 4 days.

Feed horse in a pan on the ground.

Remember:  Chokes can reoccur and are more likely to reoccur within the first 24hrs.

Prevention:

If your horse bolts food (eats too fast) is a contributing factor, then place some VERY large (minimum of 6-inches) stones in with the feed bucket or put hay in a tight hay net (or bag). This forces the horse to slow down.

Place feeders chest level or preferably lower.  Feeders that are elevated above the chest places the horse in an abnormal feeding position and increases the risk of choke.

Have your horse’s teeth checked to determine if there is an underlying dental cause for the choke. Especially if the choke is recurrent.  Improper chewing and premature swallowing increases the risk that feed will not go down easily.

It may be necessary to avoid certain feedstuffs that carry a high risk of “gumming up” (dry beet pulp and alfalfa pellets, senior feeds can also do this)