Choke is the condition that occurs when food or a foreign body (such as a golf ball!) blocks the horse’s oesophagus (food pipe) so that food, water and saliva cannot take their normal route from the throat to the stomach.
The most common cause of choke is a horse trying to swallow food that is too dry or attempting to swallow too large an amount of food that ‘sticks’ in the throat. More uncommonly, choke can also be caused by underlying medical disorders that stop the muscle around the oesophagus from working effectively. Such conditions include grass sickness, botulism or certain tumours. Some horses might not be chewing their food effectively and attempt to swallow larger lumps of food that are more likely to get stuck, certain conditions that stop the horse chewing properly such as dental disease, tongue problems or tetanus can therefore also be underlying causes of choke.
Symptoms of choke are typically a horse that suddenly appears distressed, often stretching its head down towards the ground, sometimes with the mouth open, they may groan, some attempt to roll. Most horses quickly start to dribble saliva from the mouth as they are unable to swallow it and some start to produce fluid at their nostrils as the saliva builds up in the throat and has nowhere else to go.
Some cases of choke resolve on their own (often not long after you have called the vet and they are already on the way!) Just like when you get some food stuck in your own throat, the obstruction can suddenly just clear itself. However, many horses require a vet visit to help clear the obstruction or to treat secondary problems.
On arrival, we will normally sedate your horse as the sedative relaxes the muscles around the oesophagus and this allows the obstruction to clear. Sometimes we will also give an additional muscle relaxant and possibly some pain relief/anti-inflammatory medicine. If this does not clear the problem over a couple of hours, we might pass a tube into the oesophagus and gently move the obstruction down into the stomach.
Occasionally the horse might have inhaled saliva which puts the horse at risk of developing ‘aspiration pneumonia’ – infection in the lungs due to inhaled bacteria. If we are suspicious this might develop, we will often start your horse on a course of antibiotics.
We will often recommend your horse has a dental check if he has recently had an episode of choke. If your horse repeatedly chokes, we will recommend viewing the throat and oesophagus with a camera – endoscopy to rule out underlying causes.
To prevent the problem, you will find that soft foods are easier to swallow and that food fed from the floor is also easier for the horse to swallow normally rather than those fed at chest or head height.