Finding your horse in distress can be a frightening experience for any owner, and choke is such a condition. A horse with choke should be considered as an equine emergency that should be dealt with by an equine vet. But what causes choke and what should you do to help your horse while you wait for the vet to arrive?
What causes choke?
Choke occurs when the horse's oesophagus (gullet) is blocked by a foreign body or by a mass of poorly-chewed food. The condition usually occurs when a horse tries to swallow very dry food, such as hay or dry sugar beet pulp, that then swells when it comes into contact with the horse's saliva.
As horses have no vomit reflex, the obstruction will remain in situ, unless action is taken to move it. Dehydration could occur, or the gullet may rupture, placing the animal in immediate danger from shock or infection.
Signs and symptoms
The following signs could indicate that your horse has choke:
- food coming down the horse's nostrils
- excess amounts of froth and saliva from the horse's mouth
- a gurgling sound
- coughing or gagging
- standing with the neck stretched out
- repeated attempts to swallow
- visible lump in the horse's throat if the blockage is high up in the oesophagus
If you observe any of the above signs, call your equine vet for immediate assistance.
Sometimes, the saliva produced by the horse will provide sufficient lubrication to move the obstruction on down the gullet and harmlessly into the stomach. If the obstruction is clearly visible as a lump in the horse's gullet, gently massage the area. This action can often help to break up the mass, so that the horse can then swallow it.
If the horse is still choking when the equine vet arrives, they will take the following action:
- administer a muscle relaxant to relax the gullet so that the blockage clears by itself
- insert a stomach tube into the gullet to break up the mass, and then flush it through into the stomach with water
You can help to prevent incidences of choke by taking the following action:
- Have your horse's teeth checked regularly by your equine vet to ensure that there are no sharp edges that may be preventing the horse from chewing food properly.
- Ensure that dry rations are dampened before feeding, and soak sugar beet pulp thoroughly.
- Provide clean, fresh water for your horse at all times.
- If your horse is greedy and is inclined to bolt his forage, use special haylage nets with very small holes to prevent them grabbing too much in one mouthful.
- If you feed carrots, apples or other roots, always slice them into lengthways slivers or grate them. This will prevent the risk of your horse gobbling up a lump of solid root and choking on it.
Choke is a frightening and potentially dangerous condition. Follow the tips for prevention given above, and always call your equine vet if you think that your horse is choking.