Horse Side Vet Guide ®

Equine Health Resource

Cannot Swallow, Difficulty Swallowing

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

Code Red - Call Your Vet Immediately, Even Outside Business Hours

  • If this problem seems severe and has come on suddenly.
  • If the horse seems to be in distress.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) in the resting horse indicate fever (Temp>101F/38.3C), or heart rate greater than 48 BPM.

Code Orange - Call Your Vet at Their First Available Office Hours

  • If the problem is very mild and does not seem to be causing much harm to the horse.
  • If the results of the Whole Horse Exam (WHE) suggest the horse is otherwise normal.

The swallowing reflex requires coordinated nerve and muscular function and involves the rear of the mouth, the tongue, the pharynx, epiglottis, larynx and esophagus. Difficulty swallowing may be a sign of dental disease, pain in the esophagus, pain in the back of the mouth or pharynx, or a neurological or muscular abnormality involving the swallowing reflex. Inability to swallow is easily confused with difficult chewing.

If a horse truly cannot swallow, saliva often pools in the esophagus and comes out of the nostrils, along with feed material. Foals that cannot swallow often salivate, and have milk return through their nostrils.

WHAT TO DO

Assess your horse’s general health using the Whole Horse Exam (WHE), assess their mouth (wear gloves) looking for anything abnormal. Offer your horse a very small handful of feed and study their response. Watch the horse drink. Can you see a wave of contraction travel down the left side of the horse’s neck? Share your findings and concerns with your vet.

WHAT YOUR VET DOES

Your vet will perform a physical exam. They may offer enough feed to observe the behavior for themselves, and at that point decide on additional diagnostics, such as passage of a nasogastric tube if there is a question about esophageal obstruction.

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP

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