What is Choking?
Choking in horses is different from choking in humans. Humans choke from getting something stuck in the trachea, blocking their airway, but it is the esophagus that is blocked in the horse. This means that your horse is able to breathe, but cannot swallow. Choking is the most common esophageal condition in horses and can happen for many different reasons. Some of the main reasons are eating too fast, food that is too dry or stuck together, and lack of fresh water. Some horses eat more aggressively than others and some actually eat foreign objects that make them choke.
Choking in horses is not an uncommon condition, but it may be very dangerous to your pet’s health. In fact, choking is one of the top ten emergency calls to equine veterinarians and can lead to other serious conditions such as aspiration pneumonia. Some of the signs to look for are coughing, drooling, and a green or yellow discharge from the nostrils. If not treated right away this can be fatal so if you suspect your horse has choke, it is best to call the veterinarian or go to an emergency animal hospital.
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Symptoms of Choking in Horses
he symptoms are different in every horse and may also differ due to the progression of the condition. Since you are unable to be around your pet 24/7, choke can go on for hours or even days before you notice anything wrong. By that time, the only symptoms may be depression, weakness, not eating, and dehydration. Some of the most often reported signs of choke in horses are:
- Swallowing difficulties
- Excessive drooling
- Coughing and gagging
- Stretching the neck downward trying to clear the throat
- Lack of appetite
- Green, yellow, or clear discharge from the nose (may look like vomit)
- Rapid heart rate
- Nervousness and agitation
- A lump on the side of the neck that can be seen or felt (usually on the left side)
- Dehydration if not treated right away
Causes of Choking in Horses
Sometimes it is impossible to tell why your horse choked, but the most common reasons are:
- Eating too fast
- Not chewing food properly
- Food too dry
- Not enough fresh water available
- Eating foreign objects
- Older horses
- Bad teeth
Diagnosis of Choking in Horses
In this situation, the veterinarian will sedate your horse in order to be able to see what is going on. Once your horse is relaxed, the veterinarian will likely insert a tube through the nostril into the esophagus until it reaches the blockage. During this procedure the veterinarian will ask about your pet’s medical history, vaccinations, and when you noticed the symptoms. A quick but thorough physical examination will be done to check your horse’s body temperature, heart rate, breath sounds, blood pressure, weight, and body condition score. Blood will be drawn for a complete blood count, liver enzyme profile, fungal and bacterial cultures, electrolyte level panel, and serum chemical analysis.
Digital radiography (x-rays) will be performed so the blockage can be seen better. An endoscopy may be done to get a better look at what is blocking your horse’s esophagus. This procedure is done by inserting an endoscope (long flexible tube) down the nostril into the esophagus. The endoscope has a lighted camera that projects the video onto a monitor so the veterinarian is able to see the problem. The veterinarian may also be able to insert small tools through the endoscope to remove the blockage.
Treatment of Choking in Horses
Sometimes the blockage dislodges itself or it will do so after your horse is given a sedative for the endoscopy. If that is the case, the veterinarian will usually just provide a bit of fluids to prevent dehydration. Otherwise, there are several treatment choices, including endoscopic lavage. However, in some cases, the veterinarian is not able to dislodge the blockage with an endoscope and will have to do surgery to remove the object.
An endoscopic lavage is done by pumping water through the nasogastric tube while the veterinarian moves the tube back and forth. During this procedure, your horse’s head will need to be lower than the rest of the body to prevent the water and food particles from getting into the lungs. This procedure is 90% effective in removing the blockage.
An esophagotomy is done in rare cases when the veterinarian is unable to remove the blockage with all other methods. This operation is done by making a small incision in the esophagus above the blockage and removing the obstruction while looking for other obstructions or other issues.
Some of the medications used for this condition are antibiotics to prevent infection, a sedative such as detomidine or xylazine, muscle relaxant such as oxytocin, and steroids for pain and swelling.
Recovery of Choking in Horses
Your horse should be observed carefully over the next several weeks to make sure choke does not recur, and to watch for complications. Many horses with choke end up getting aspiration pneumonia or mucosal ulceration so it is important to check on your pet often and call your veterinarian if you have any concerns or questions.