I wrote this article after dealing with a senior horse who had recurrent choke episodes. Eventually I had to put her down because the scar tissue in her esophagus was so great that she would have needed to be on IV and feeding tubes. Hopefully this will help someone out there.
***DISCLAIMER: I am not a veterinary professional. All of the information presented here is for informational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose nor treat any condition in your horse. You should ALWAYS rely on the advice of your veterinarian over an article on the internet!***
Choke, just as it sounds, is a condition in which an object becomes lodged in the horse’s throat or esophagus. This object could be a non-food item such as a cloth, bag, small toy, etc or a food object such as a quid (hay that has not been fully chewed) or grain that the horse is unable to chew properly. Choke can occur in any age horse but is particularly prevalent in horses that are aged and/or have not had proper dental care. Choke is a serious condition and should be assessed by a qualified veterinarian immediately as it can be deadly to your horse.
What are the signs of choke?
The signs of choke are fairly obvious if you know what to look for. The choking horse will typically extend its neck toward the ground repeatedly and attempt to cough. In some cases this may dislodge the object, but in others it will not. The horse may become uncharacteristically lethargic and inactive and refuse food or drink. The horse may also exhibit a type of drool which may either be foamy or appear like undigested food depending on the object causing the obstruction.
If you suspect your horse is choking, call your veterinarian immediately. Remove any sources of food or drink from your horse to prevent further aggravation of the problem by the horse continuing to try to eat or drink. Unlike people, a horse can still breathe when an episode of choke occurs which is helpful when the vet is unable to magically appear at your doorstep. In the meantime, you can run your hand along each side of your horse’s esophagus to try and locate the obstruction. If the likely culprit is hay or feed, you may be able to break up the obstruction by using long, firm strokes of your hand from the throat toward the stomach. This can resolve many minor cases of choke, but it is still advisable to have your veterinarian examine the horse to be sure the obstruction has passed to the stomach. Most horses can be safely hauled a short drive to your vet if they are unavailable for a farm call.
The standard treatment for choke involves inserting a tube through the nose, down the esophagus and flushing with water until the tube reaches the stomach. Depending on how long your horse has been choking, the vet may either pump fluid directly into the stomach or they may wish to insert an IV drip and observe the horse overnight. Your vet may also inject your horse with antibiotic or prescribe a round of oral antibiotics to help stave off infections arising from the episode. They may also suggest a NSAID pain reliever to ease the discomfort to your horse.
The biggest immediate risk from choke is dehydration. If your horse is choking, he will be unable to drink which can cause dehydration very quickly. The stress from choke can also cause your horse to dehydrate more quickly than normal. Other risks include pneumonia from fluid collecting in the lungs and infection. A horse who repeatedly chokes may also develop scar tissue in the esophagus that increases the chances of recurring episodes in a vicious cycle.
Who is at risk for choke?
Any horse can choke. The most likely candidates for a serious choking episode are elderly horses and horses who do not have proper dental care. Elderly horses may have missing teeth which prevents them from properly chewing their food which in turn increases their chances of choking. In many cases, this can be avoided by feeding the senior horse a mash of senior feed several times a day and removing any roughage. You and your veterinarian should decide on the best feeding regimen for your senior horse to keep him happy and healthy. Younger horses who choke typically do so on foreign objects but may also choke on their feed or roughage if their dental condition makes it painful for them to properly chew their food.
Generally, a horse should have a dental check-up at least once per year to prevent painful dental problems. Most horses will need to have their teeth floated, or filed down, about once per year starting around age 3. It is important to not wait until you see a problem before you have your horse started on a dental care routine. The best way to prevent choke in your horse is to establish and maintain a regular dental plan his entire life. An older horse will normally begin to lose his teeth at some point so it is important to be attentive and adjust his nutritional plan accordingly. If you begin to notice your senior horse quidding, that is, chewing hay and spitting it out, you should have his teeth checked and talk to your vet about switching him to a complete feed and removing sources of forage.
Specifically for senior horses…
In some cases, a senior horse may no longer be able to even properly chew a complete grain. If this is the case, warm water may be added to his grain to soften it to a mush like or soupy texture. Many senior horses can live many more happy years on this nutritional plan. The biggest caveat to this type of feeding program is the time and expense involved. A complete grain ration is much more expensive than feeding hay and concentrated grains due to the fact that most horses will require a larger serving of this feed due to the forage they lack. You should expect an average senior horse to consume about 15 lbs of complete feed per day or more in some cases. It is also advisable to break up the feedings into four or five smaller servings per day rather than one or two feedings per day as you would with a concentrated feed product. Feeding any horse too much feed at any given time can increase their chances of colic. Senior horses can be very expensive and time consuming to care for, but when it comes to your best friend, are they not worth it?