What are the symptoms of choke in horses?

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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An episode of choke in your horse can be alarming and stressful, however, in the majority of cases the condition will resolve and have no serious consequences.

Unlike in humans, choke in the horse is not immediately life threatening. This is because in horses it's not the trachea (wind pipe) that's blocked, but the oesophagus.

The oesophagus is the muscular tube that takes food from the mouth to the stomach.

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

Along the oesophagus is a series of muscles that contract in a wave-like fashion, known as peristalsis, to push food down the tube.

When food or a foreign object becomes stuck in the oesophagus, these muscles may contract and spasm around the blockage, further preventing it from moving down to the stomach.

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.

What are the symptoms? 

Horses usually show signs of choke very soon after the blockage occurs.

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.

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 stained green or brown due to feed material in the oesophagus and mouth.

If the blockage is large, there may be a visible swelling on the neck. Signs of stress and discomfort such as sweating, pawing and box walking are often seen. 

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How is choke diagnosed?

Diagnosis is often made simply from examining the horse and observing the clinical signs.

A vet may pass a tube up the horse’s nose and into the oesophagus.

An inability to pass the tube down the length of the oesophagus and into the stomach indicates a blockage at the point where the tube gets stuck.

A small camera (endoscope) can also be passed into the oesophagus to view the blockage.