If your horse is coughing or unable to swallow their food, they may have developed choke. Our Stillwater vets are here to tell you all about this sometimes deadly condition and how it's treated and prevented. 

What Choke Is

Choke occurs when partially chewed food gets wadded up and stuck in the esophagus. The horse coughs excessively, trying to shift the mass. Saliva and particles of food exit the nostrils, since the horse is unable to swallow. Depending on where the obstruction is, you may or may not be able to see a lump from the outside.

In some cases, it’s difficult to identify choke as distinct from fairly regular horse behaviors. To correctly identify choke, look to see if the horse is coughing or unable to swallow. One of the most certain signs of choke is the regurgitation of feed through both the mouth and nostrils.

Some horses are able to resolve a mild choke on their own. Allow the horse to relax and keep it away from food and water temporarily. Choke can be a medical emergency. Some horses are very uncomfortable and can behave similarly to a colic. If the choke does not seem to be resolving contact your veterinarian.

Causes of Choke

A number of factors can lead to a choke.

  • Horses not chewing feed completely, due to dental problems, such as missing or painful teeth, sharp points, etc.
  • Horses eating too quickly and swallowing before food is chewed properly.
  • Horse not producing enough saliva to wet food properly when eating.
  • Partial obstruction of the esophagus due to tumor, or scarring from old injuries etc.

Treating Choke

As soon as you suspect your horse is choking, remove all feed and hay, so he can’t eat anything else, adding to the problem. Call the vet immediately.

While you’re waiting for the vet, encourage the horse to stand quietly, with his head down. This will decrease the chance that anything he coughs up will find its way into his trachea and lungs and possibly cause aspiration pneumonia, a complication that sometimes arises after a choke has cleared.

When treating choke, the vet’s objective is to clear the obstruction from the esophagus. This is done by passing a tube through the horse’s nostril and down into the esophagus, to the point of the obstruction.

The vet then flushes water into the tube and siphons it back out again. This usually has to be done many times, sometimes taking two or more buckets of water. Each time, a bit more of the matted food is washed away and the mass gets smaller.

By carefully working the tube back and forth in the esophagus, the vet can move the obstruction down into the stomach and clear the choke. Care has to be taken so the esophagus is not damaged or ruptured in the process.

Preventing Choke

There are a number of ways in which the horse owner can help prevent a choke.

  • Schedule regular dental exams. For a senior horse, this may need to be done twice yearly.
  • Switch to a “Senior” feed that is more easily chewed and digested.
  • Wetting the feed down also helps with chewing and digestion.
  • If the horse tends to bolt his food place one or more large rocks in the feeder so the horse has to pick around them to get to its grain.
  • Schedule as much turnout time as possible, so the horse can graze between meals, which may make him eat its grain more slowly.

If you suspect that your horse has food stuck in their esophagus, contact our Stillwater equine veterinarians immediately for urgent care.