Choke can look alarming, especially if you’ve never seen it before. When a wad of poorly chewed feed or a big chunk of apple gets stuck in a horse’s esophagus, the muscles may spasm and clamp it in place, causing him to cough, gag and produce prodigious amounts of drool and nasal discharge.
Unlike choking in people, however, choke in horses doesn’t interfere with the ability to breathe, so it does not pose an immediate threat to life. In fact, choke will usually subside on its own. If it doesn’t, however, you’ll want to take quick action to prevent a minor problem from leading to serious complications. Here’s what to do.
SUSPECT A HORSE HAS CHOKE, IF HE:
• abruptly stops eating, and perhaps takes on an alarmed or confused expression.
• coughs, gags, retches, while stretching his neck and/or shaking his head.
• drools heavily and expels discharge that includes bits of food from his nostrils.
• shows signs of discomfort, such as sweating or pawing.
WHAT TO DO FIRST:
• Remove all hay, feed and water, and do not let the horse graze. Some choking horses may attempt to continue eating and drinking, which will only increase the size of the blockage and may make the case more serious.
• Call the veterinarian. Choke that continues more than a few minutes is an emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention.
AS YOU WAIT FOR THE VETERINARIAN:
• Keep the horse calm. Encourage him to stand quietly with his head lowered. If he’s in a pasture, move him to a stall or dry lot. Placing a buddy nearby may help him to relax.
• Monitor the situation. If you see nasal discharge that contains bits of chewed food, wipe it away with a clean rag, but take note of the color, volume and consistency so you can report it to your veterinarian. Taking photos with your cell phone can also be useful. Call your veterinarian with an update if you see blood, foreign objects or anything other than food draining from your horse’s nose or mouth.
Also let your veterinarian know if the discharge stops. Often, as the horse continues to produce and swallow saliva, his esophageal muscles relax and the blockage passes through to his stomach. If this happens, the case is no longer an emergency, but your veterinarian will still want to examine the horse for potential causes of the choke, such as a tumor or other growth in the neck or throat.
Depending on the severity of the choke, an endoscopic0 examination of the esophagus to look for tears or other injuries may be advisable. Your veterinarian may also recommend management changes to help prevent a recurrence.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
• Do not squirt water into the horse’s mouth. You will greatly increase the risk that he will develop aspiration pneumonia, a serious lung infection, should he inhale any of the liquid into his lungs.
• Do not administer medications or home remedies. Nothing you can do will help, and you may make the situation much worse if you cause permanent damage to the lining of the esophagus. Even rubbing the horse’s neck may cause injury.
Watch for cough, fever or a runny nose. Call your veterinarian right away if you notice these signs within a few days after a horse has choked. He may have drawn foreign materials or fluids into his lungs and developed aspiration pneumonia, which is difficult to treat and can be fatal.
[Read up on horse health]
Horse Owner's Veterinary Handbook
Storey's Barn Guide to Horse Health Care + First Aid
Horse Health Care: A Step-By-Step Photographic Guide to Mastering Over 100 Horsekeeping Skills
The Merck Veterinary Manual
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This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016.