Choking is alarming at the best of times, even in humans! But when it comes to your horse, choking can potentially be more serious. When you notice that your horse is choking, it’s not always a reason to sound the alarms. Instead, most choke cases can resolve themselves pretty quickly (much like when we cough to dislodge something from our throat).
However, since choking is an emergency in horses, it’s important to know what to do. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of causes, symptoms, and emergency responses for when your horse is choking. With our expert tips, you’ll be able to navigate any emergency situation and keep your horse in tip-top health.
What is Choke in Horses?
Choke is a common emergency in horses where the oesophagus becomes obstructed. This obstruction usually prevents the horse from swallowing properly and stops food and water from being passed through the horse’s mouth and into its stomach. Unlike human choking, however, horses can still breathe because the blockage is in the oesophagus rather than the windpipe.
While cases of choke episodes are rarely fatal, your horse will need prompt veterinary attention if the choke fails to clear in two hours. In some instances, the cases resolve spontaneously after around 45 minutes to an hour. But if you’re particularly distressed, you can seek veterinary help as soon as the episode starts.
Causes of Choke
There are several causes of choke, but the most common one is eating dry or coarse food too quickly. When dry food like pelleted grain or hay isn’t properly moistened or the horse doesn’t chew it enough, it can swell when it’s mixed with the horse’s saliva. This is what causes the food material to become lodged in the oesophagus. Similarly, hard food or treats like carrots may also become stuck.
Underlying factors like abnormal oesophagal anatomy, dental abnormalities, or difficulties in swallowing due to exhaustion or dehydration can also increase the risk of choke. In rare cases, horses may suffer from choke when they are recovering from sedation or anaesthesia. This is because sedation can impair the horse’s ability to swallow properly.
If your horse has experienced recurrent choke, it’s important to investigate potential causes by assessing your horse’s teeth, swallowing abilities, and checking for obstructions in its throat. You may also want to watch your horse as it feeds because greed can increase the chances of choke.
Symptoms of Choke
When your horse is suffering from choke, you may notice some of the following symptoms:
- A notable presence of saliva or chewed food coming out of the horse’s mouth or nostrils.
- If your horse is struggling to swallow.
- Rapid weight loss or refusal to eat or coughing and discomfort as the horse continues to eat.
- Repetitive coughing.
- Abnormally high levels of salivation (also known as hypersalivation).
- A lower mood like depression or lethargy.
- Signs of abdominal discomfort that might resemble colic behaviour.
Horses with choke often have a frothy discharge from one or both nostrils or coming from their mouth. It may be white, green, or brown (similar to the colour of their horse feed).
This is usually the first indication that there is a mixture of undigested food and saliva that hasn’t yet passed through the stomach tube. When this happens, the horse may make repeated attempts to swallow or stretch their necks in an attempt to pass the food further down.
Affected horses may also become distressed and can cough and splutter. They may also retch until the food passes, although horses aren’t able to vomit, which is why they can’t vomit up the impacted food.
When your horse is coughing, you may want to check the sides of its neck. You may be able to feel or see a visible lump where the food is lodged.
Despite the blockage, horses may still attempt to keep eating. It’s important to stop your horse from eating any more until the choke has stopped or moved down to the stomach tube. Otherwise, there’s a risk of the food entering the lungs. In more severe choke cases, this can lead to your horse developing lung infections.
What To Do if Your Horse is Choking
If your horse is choking, it’s important to phone your local equine vet and try to keep it calm while you wait. When horses have choke episodes, they tend to panic and can become frantic, so you should do your best to reassure them. Try to encourage your horse to stand still with its head low. Then, continue to monitor the situation until the vet arrives.
Below is a video to show you what to do if you suspect choke in your horse
Monitor the situation closely
If you notice any discharge coming from your horse’s nose, be sure to wipe it away with a clean, dry rag. You should take note of the colour, consistency, and amount of the discharge so that you can inform your vet, or try to keep the rag nearby when they arrive.
When your horse relaxes, it will continue to produce saliva which may help the choke to resolve spontaneously. This is because the oesophagal muscles relax and the food passes down into the stomach. When the cases resolve on their own, it’s no longer an emergency. However, your vet should still perform an exam to determine the reason for the choke.
You can also help the food pass by massaging the left side of your horse’s neck, which can relax the oesophageal muscles.
If the choke fails to clear, the risk of your horse developing lung infections increases. Some horses may also develop pneumonia (aspiration pneumonia in particular) if they are left untreated, so you will want to keep monitoring the horse until your vet can assess and treat the situation.
Remove food and water from your horse’s reach
Your horse may make repeated attempts to continue eating or drinking, even when they have a food impaction. So, to avoid further blockage, it’s important that you remove any food or water from the pasture or stables. You can also move your horse away from the food trough if you can’t move the food.
One of the main risks associated when a horse inhales saliva or impacted food is that it may develop pneumonia. In fact, pneumonia is common in more than half of choke cases.
Remember the basic first aid practices
- Place your horse in a box with no food or water, or with only edible bedding while you wait for your vet.
- Keep your horse calm and massage the left side of your horse’s neck gently to make it more comfortable.
- Keep your horse’s head low to help the saliva drain and avoid repeated attempts by your horse to force the food further down.
- Monitor the situation and, if the choke doesn’t resolve itself after an hour or two, make sure to contact your vet.
Treatment for Choke in Horses
When your equine vet arrives, they will take several steps to resolve the choke or ease your horse’s discomfort. The vet will usually start by administering sedatives and muscle relaxants to calm your horse down and relax the muscles around the impaction. This will help to facilitate the removal of the obstruction.
Then, using a stomach tube, the vet will gently flush the food with water. The horse will need to keep its head down to help the food drain out through its nose rather than accidentally being inhaled into its lungs.
If your horse is dehydrated, the vet may also need to give it intravenous fluids and electrolytes for hydration. The horse may also need antibiotics to avoid developing an infection in its lungs.
Is there a way to prevent choke?
Usually, choke is an unfortunate and unavoidable event (much like when we choke on our supper). However, there are a few things you can do to lower the chances of your horse suffering from this uncomfortable condition:
- Soak your horse’s food in plenty of water before feeding it.
- Keep plenty of fresh, clean water around for your horse to drink.
- Feed your horse away from others, since many of them may eat too quickly when there is competition for resources.
- Find a way to feed your horse at a higher position, with its neck in a relaxed position rather than pointing downward.
How long does it take for a horse to recover from choking?
When your horse has had a severe case of choke, it’s important to allow its oesophagus time to heal. You can do this by feeding your horse mushy or runny foods for a few days to a week after the incident. However, if the choke resolved itself, your horse should be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after around 24 hours.