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Choke is an unpleasant and potentially life-threatening scenario for a horse. Food becomes lodged in the oesophagus, causing a stubborn blockage that can leave him coughing and spluttering.

A horse with choke will have difficulty swallowing and may bend or stretch his neck in an attempt to clear the pipes. He may drool saliva, or snort bits of feed or discharge from one or both nostrils. Unable to ingest any food or water, he’ll soon become dehydrated and depressed.

There’s a chance that the mass, which may be visible as a lump on the left side of the neck near the top, will clear itself. The longer the duration of the obstruction, however, the greater the risk of complications.

“It’s not a ‘blue light’ emergency, but a horse with choke will need veterinary attention,” says Tony Kaye MRCVS of St David’s Equine. “Feed materials or fluids that are inhaled into the lungs can cause aspiration pneumonia. There’s also a chance that the inside of the oesophagus may become damaged or even rupture.

“The longer the blockage is there, the harder it can be to move on,” adds Tony, pointing out that some horses will continue to eat unless prevented, causing further mouthfuls of food to build up behind the obstruction.

swollen Esophagus

A swollen esophagus

Reducing risk

If it won’t come up or go down, how is the blockage removed?

“A stomach tube can be passed up the nose and into the oesophagus, so that fluid can be pumped through it to loosen the obstruction,” explains Tony. “Sometimes the lump can be pushed along with gentle pressure on the stomach tube, or gradually broken down with an instrument passed through an endoscope.

“Another option is to try to flush the blockage down with high-pressure water, although there’s the risk that this will be breathed into the lungs. Surgery is very much a last resort, as the oesophagus doesn’t tend to heal well.”

Most horses need very little treatment. An injection of sedatives may be all that is necessary, enabling the horse to relax and lower his head so that the obstruction can pass. The worst cases can be difficult to shift, however, so it makes sense to prevent choke where possible.

“Poorly soaked feed is a typical cause — usually sugar beet, or even nuts that swell once eaten to form a paste,” says Tony. “Prepare feeds properly and provide constant access to clean drinking water. Slice carrots and apples into long, thin strips, rather than feeding them in large chunks.

“Keep on top of dental checks to rule out any oral problems that could cause eating issues,” he adds. “Try to slow down a greedy eater, perhaps by feeding him separately or placing a large, smooth object, such as a pebble, in his feed bowl. Be aware, too, that horses who nibble wood or even shavings are also at risk.”

Choke

A blokage

Case study

When miniature Shetland Dandelion bit off more than she could chew, her owners noticed a heavy discharge from her left nostril.

“We couldn’t see a direct cause, so we monitored her for a few hours before calling the vet,” says Malcolm Collett, who bought the 12hh mare 10 years ago for his daughter Amy. “They diagnosed choke and put a tube down her, but the blockage wouldn’t clear. After another failed attempt the next day, we had to take her
to St David’s Equine Practice in Exeter.

“We were very worried about Dandy, as she’d stopped drinking and nothing was moving through her system,” Malcolm continues. “The vets used a camera and found bits of carrot and matted hay blocking the top part of her oesophagus. They spent a good two hours flushing fluids through until the lump shifted, much to everyone’s relief.

“We’ve since had her teeth done again, although there was not a lot wrong there. We now feed her Dengie Hi-Fi Lite and make sure that she can’t gulp down carrot and hay.”

Ref Horse & Hound; 22 September 2016