Horse Disease Focus - Choke
What is choke?
Choke is when a horse gets food stuck in the esophagus. As horses have no gag reflex, choke can be very serious.
Choke is more common in older horses that have dental problems. Most horses go their entire life, however, without ever experiencing it, whilst others are particularly prone to it. In some cases, chronic choke can be so serious that euthanasia is recommended.
The first symptom of choke is excessive and particularly loud coughing. Any horse that suddenly starts coughing should be checked out immediately. (Other common causes of sudden coughing episodes are dust and allergies).
In some cases, the lump of food is actually visible from outside. The victim may also have food material emerge from both the mouth and the nostrils.
The horse may stand with its neck extended and will often show signs of distress including anxiety and distress. Excessive salvation is also common.
Choke should be treated as an emergency. Call the vet immediately.
Remove all food, water and loose bedding (i.e., anything other than solid matt style bedding) from the horse and keep it in its stall. The horse should be kept calm and should not be left unattended until the vet gets there.
The vet will use a stomach tube to clear the obstruction, passing it through the nostril and down to just above the obstruction. Clean water is used to flush the tube until the mass is washed away. This can take a while and can make a serious mess, especially as the horse might well object even through sedation. Eventually, the obstruction can be gently pushed down into the stomach with the end of the tube.
With very minor choke, it is sometimes possible to use external massage to clear the obstruction.
Some horses may experience aspiration pneumonia after choke, so the horse should be carefully monitored after an episode.
It is possible that choke is caused by a tumor, which may be cancerous. Because of this, many vets scope the esophagus after a choke episode, especially if the horse has choked more than once.
The following items are key to preventing choke:
1. Regular dental care. Many cases of choke are caused by the horse's teeth being in poor condition. If the horse cannot chew his or her food properly, then choke becomes more likely.
2. Age-appropriate feeding. Older horses should be fed senior feed. Soaking feed can also help. Very old horses with few or no teeth left need to be fed very carefully. Do not feed hard treats such as carrots, apples or cookies to a senior horse known or likely to have dental problems. Instead, offer watermelon, grapes or other soft fruit. You can sometimes buy, and often make, soft cookies designed for older horses. Senior horses may or may not do better on pellets rather than loose hay, and if hay is fed it should be soaked. As this reduces the nutritional content and as older horses often have less efficient digestive systems, the amount of hay fed should be increased.
3. Prevent your horse from bolting its feed. Some horses that are prone to choke are that way because they eat their grain too quickly. (This is not uncommon in rescued horses that have been malnourished in the past). The simplest method is to place a few stones in the grain bucket so the horse has to eat around them. If your horse bolts hay, then feed from a slow feeder or a hay net with small 'holes'.
4. Never feed any horse a whole apple. Always break it up first. Some horses will try to swallow the apple whole and this can lead to choke. Carrots should be broken up or cut lengthwise. Do not feed round carrot slices to a horse. The same goes for other root vegetables (many horses love turnips or swedes).
5. Water before feeding. Dehydration can lead to insufficient saliva production which can then cause choke. No horse should ever be offered grain without also being offered water. Also, do not feed an exhausted or sedated horse right away.
6. If your horse chokes on a particular type of food, look into an alternative.
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