“Choke” is a term referring to obstruction of a horse’s esophagus, preventing them from swallowing. Horses normally produce and swallow large quantities (gallons) of saliva per hour. Saliva produced upstream of the blockage often accumulates together with feed material and exits out of the nostrils and mouth as foamy green discharge.
Horses with choke act distressed, often cough violently, and extend their neck forward, spewing material from the nose and mouth.
Choke occurs more commonly in older horses with poor teeth, in horses that “bolt” or eat their food quickly, and in horses that are fed pelleted feeds such as beet pulp that has not been properly soaked and softened.
The word “choke” conjures up thoughts of asphyxiation. In humans “choking” suggests an obstruction that blocks the airway, that prevents a person from breathing. In horses, “choke” is a blockage of the esophagus, not the airway. Generally, horses with choke LOOK WORSE than they are. Horses with choke are visibly distressed, but in most cases can still breathe fine.
Feed and saliva do, however, accumulate around the opening to the airway (larynx), and horses can inhale debris into their lungs that can cause pneumonia later.
In some horses obstruction resolves on its own. In that case, you might see the horse suddenly relax, the nasal discharge and coughing decrease over time, and their appetite return. That said, many cases DO require veterinary intervention.
Vets usually treat choke by passing a nasogastric tube down to the obstruction, gently trying to dislodge it through controlled pressure, and breaking up of the obstruction using flushing of water through the tube. Horses are usually sedated for this procedure. By farthe majority of these cases are resolved in the field using this method, and with a little patience. In some cases, esophageal relaxing drugs may be helpful.
Stubborn esophageal obstructions, unresponsive to field treatment, are best hospitalized and treated with nursing care, IV fluids and esophageal relaxants along with repeated attempts at removing the obstruction. Endoscopy can sometimes be helpful in unresponsive cases in order to visualize the nature of the blockage.
Other Diagnoses Considered
Treatments May Include
Prognosis & Relevant Factors
The prognosis for uncomplicated choke cases is usually very good, but ultimately depends on the cause.
The type of feed material may dictate the severity of an obstruction, as some feeds become more tightly impacted and thus more difficult to remove.
True foreign bodies like apples are rare (more common in foals) but can cause stubborn obstruction and might be difficult to remove.
Obstructions that have persisted for more than a few hours may be more difficult to remove, especially as horses become more dehydrated.
Long-standing esophageal obstruction might damage the esophagus, causing scar formation and a stricture, leading to inability to swallow or recurrent choke episodes.
Pneumonia can occasionally occur following choke because horses can inhale feed and debris that accumulat around their windpipe during the episode. Antibiotics are sometimes given after a choke episode to reduce the likelihood of pneumonia developing.
In some cases, narrowing of the esophagus (leading to choke) could result from an enlarged heart (heart failure) or mass (tumor) pushing into the esophagus from the outside.
I Might ObserveRelated Observations
QUESTIONS TO ASK MY VET