When your horse chokes

Choke is the most common esophageal disorder in horses and occurs when poorly chewed feed gets stuck in your horse’s esophagus and the muscles spasm and hold it in place. Unfortunately, some horses, like Curly, are prone to choke. Her owner, Lindsay, documented the most recent incident. Why does Curly choke? Partially it’s because she tends to gulp her food and partially it’s because she’s choked in the past — this has likely resulted in scarring in her esophagus that makes subsequent choke episodes more likely.

How do you know your horse is choking? Typically it presents as coughing, drooling and nasal discharge. Your horse may also stretch its neck or shake its head. While a human who is choking can’t breathe, a horse that is choking can’t swallow. Here’s a video that shows Curly choking.

If you think your horse is choking, the first things to do are:

    1. Remove all food and water. You don’t want to compound the problem by increasing the size of the blockage.
    2. Call the vet.
    3. If advised by the vet, administer a sedative like Ace or Banamine. Sometimes, this drug-induced relaxation is enough to calm the spasming esophagus so that the obstruction can pass.
    4. Don’t squirt water into the horse’s mouth. If your horse tries to swallow when choked, he or she may aspirate the food or water into the trachea, which can lead to aspiration pneumonia.

If the choke doesn’t pass on its own — which is what happened to Curly —  it’s important to have the vet come and clear the blockage using a nasogastric, or NG, tube — a long plastic hose that is inserted into the horse’s nostril and passed into the esophagus. While the vet instructions say “carefully inserted” you can see how difficult it is to get that tube into a horse’s nostril. Curly might have been unhappy and lethargic in regards to the choke, but she did NOT want the tube inserted.

The NG tube will only insert as far as the instruction. Once the blockage is reached, the vet will pour water down the tube to help soften the blockage.

Follow up care

Since your horse may have aspirated some of the food into their esophagus you need to monitor them carefully for several days. A horse that spikes a fever may have pneumonia — so it’s important to check their temperature several times a day. Pneumonia typically appears 24 to 48 hours after the onset of choke. Curly was put on antibiotics for several days as a preventative.

During the recovery period, your vet may also suggest soaking your horse’s hay and grain. Curly’s hay was soaked for about a week and all her grain continues to be soaked. To keep horses from bolting their feed, another solution is to put large rocks in the feed pan so your horse needs to eat around them.

Given the issues that can arise from a choking episode, I personally think it’s not a bad idea to soak all your horse’s grain.



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