Choke: symptoms and treatment

Choke is a distressing situation for horses and owners. Vet Katherine Wright, from Minister Equine Veterinary Clinic in York, explains how to recognise and prevent this terrifying condition

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Unlike in humans, choke in the horse is not immediately life-threatening.

This is because in horses it is not the trachea (windpipe) that is blocked, but the oesophagus.

This means that the horse can breathe normally during an episode of choke, although they may be stressed and uncomfortable.

Although many cases of choke resolve, it is important to contact a vet as soon as you notice the problem.

Severe cases or those that take a long time to pass can cause long term damage to the lining of the oesophagus.

3 symptoms of choke

1. Gagging

The horse may appear uncomfortable, stretch their neck out and try to swallow repeatedly. In an attempt to clear the blockage they may cough, retch or make gagging noises.

2. Fluid from nostrils and mouth

The most common sign of choke is fluid coming from the nostrils and mouth, which is often green or brown coloured and may be profuse.

This occurs because saliva produced by the horse cannot be swallowed due to the blockage, it therefore builds up and comes out of the nostrils and mouth.

It's often stained green or brown due to feed material in the oesophagus and mouth.

3. Swelling on neck

If the blockage is large, there may be a visible swelling on the neck.

4. Stress

Signs of stress and discomfort such as sweating, pawing and box walking are often seen. 

Treating choke

The first thing your vet may do is to administer some sedation and a muscle relaxant.

This will relax your horse and his muscles in the oesophagus, relieving any muscular spasm around the obstruction.

To have a better view of the blockage, an endoscopic camera may be used.

In severe cases when the blockage cannot be cleared by any other means, surgery may be necessary, although this is rare.

After the choke has resolved it is important to monitor your horse for signs of damage to the oesophagus and for aspiration pneumonia which is caused by feed material being inhaled into the lungs.

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