Choke is a condition in which a horse's esophagus becomes blocked by ingested food. This blockage does not block the horse's trachea, so the horse is still able to breathe. However, because the horse cannot swallow, this can lead to dehydration and the development of aspiration pneumonia. Therefore, emergency treatment is necessary when a horse develops choke.
A horse may develop choke from not chewing its food thoroughly, from swallowing large pieces of food or from eating too fast. Another cause of choke is consuming dry food that absorbs water, or a lack of water while eating. For example, if beet pulp is not presoaked, it may expand in the esophagus, causing a blockage. Choke is also caused from ingesting nonfood items, which is something bored horses may choose to do.
The warning signs of choke include a disinterest in eating and difficulty swallowing. Further signs include coughing, increased saliva and drooling, a lump on the left side of the neck, increased heart rate and the horse extending its head and neck downward. Call the veterinarian immediately when any of these warning signs are observed in the horse.
Do not feed the horse any food or drink until the veterinarian treats the horse. The veterinarian will perform tests to determine what type of esophageal blockage the horse has. The horse will then be sedated and given a medication to make the esophagus relax. The stuck food may then move down the esophagus on its own, or the veterinarian may use a stomach tube to gently move the blockage down and into the stomach. Caution is also used as warm water is fed down the stomach tube to soften the mass. More severe cases of choke may require further medical treatment.
The veterinarian may then prescribe antibiotic medications to prevent aspiration pneumonia in the horse, once the blockage is removed from the esophagus. The greatest concern is for the horse to not develop pneumonia and for the esophagus returns to normal function.
Choke also causes inflammation of the esophageal walls, which, in turn causes a narrowing, or stenosis, of the esophagus. In this case, choke can easily develop again. To avoid this, the veterinarian may also prescribe a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine. Additionally, the horse is fed soft foods until the esophagus heals from its scarring.
To prevent choke from occurring or reoccurring, the horse's diet must be examined. If the horse is fed beet pulp, always presoak it. Give the horse water to drink while eating, and gradually introduce new foods into a horse's diet. Cut up all treats into smaller pieces for easy digestion, and prevent the horse from eating too much food at one time. If the horse undergoes any treatments requiring sedation, wait 1 hour after waking before feeding the horse. This will allow all of the digestive muscles a chance to regain their muscle tone.