When your beloved horse suddenly starts coughing, gagging and producing huge amounts of drool and nasal discharge it can be an alarming experience for both of you. Fortunately, if you read our guide to choke in horses you should be able to keep calm and help your equine friend quickly recover.
While you’re getting all the inside info on this condition, be sure to investigate whether your horse insurance cover is still up to scratch. Give the helpful team at Equesure a call today and check you’ve still got the most appropriate horse insurance for your needs and budget. Choke usually doesn’t pose an immediate threat to your horse’s life, but do the wrong thing and it could turn into a potentially life-threatening situation.
Choke in horses: all you need to know
Choke (also known as oesophageal obstruction) is a condition where a horse gets a food mass or other foreign objects stuck somewhere between the back of their mouth and the stomach. This obstruction in the oesophagus (also called the gullet) stops food and saliva passing down to the stomach and can cause a lot of distress to the horse.
Measuring between 1.25m and 1.5m long, the oesophagus has smooth muscle running along its walls which contracts in a wave pattern called peristalsis. This allows food to be pushed along the digestive tract from the mouth down to the stomach. So, if the oesophagus becomes blocked this can cause big problems for the horse.
Choke usually happens when a horse has eaten dried grain, beet pulp or hay too quickly. Horses who have dental problems which prevent them from chewing forage properly are also more susceptible to this condition.
Unlike their human owners, choke doesn’t interfere with a horse’s ability to breathe as it doesn’t obstruct the trachea (windpipe). So, it may not create an immediate threat to life and usually subsides on its own. However, if it doesn’t, you’ll want to act fast to prevent a minor problem becoming more serious.
Spotting the signs of choke in horses
When a horse begins to choke, they’ll abruptly stop eating and typically be in a very distressed state, probably looking alarmed or confused. They’ll begin coughing and spluttering and may have difficulty swallowing anything further.
You might notice exaggerated swallowing efforts, perhaps while bending and stretching their neck, and/or shaking their head in a bid to shift the blockage themselves. They may also start sweating and pawing among other more general signs of discomfort.
Sometimes, because they can’t swallow properly, you’ll see saliva and even food pour from their mouth and nose as profuse green slime. While horses cannot vomit like people do, you might find them retching. They may even squeal, roll and show colic-like symptoms.
Occasionally there may be a swelling or lump that’s visible or can be felt where the blockage is. You’ll find this on the left side of the neck at the top of the oesophagus.
Strangely enough in view of their level of distress, even with a blocked oesophagus affected horses may still try to eat and drink. This is particularly hazardous as food, drink, and saliva could potentially be breathed into the lungs and cause a severe infection.
If choke persists for a long time and the blockage doesn’t shift, most horses will lose their appetite, become dull and may even run the risk of becoming dehydrated. The oesophagus may even become damaged in severe cases.
Be aware that choke can sometimes be confused with other conditions. These include bad coughs, upper respiratory tract infections, dental pain, neck pain, and colic.
You’ll usually notice signs of choke soon after the horse has been fed and it’s normally obvious there’s something wrong. The great news is that despite its dramatic appearance, it usually looks worse than it is. While many cases resolve without treatment before a vet arrives, it’s still sensible to call the vet. Even if it’s just for advice and to get your horse checked over.
Developed as a survival instinct over millions of years, horses have an amazing but infuriating ability to hide pain and distress. If you’re at all unsure as to how to tell if your horse is in pain then read our Equesure guide to clear up any doubt.
This is just one of the many reasons why reliable horse insurance is so important for every owner. Whether your equine friend is a happy hacker or a top-flight competitor, you’ll want them well protected on any occasion.
Causes of choke in horses
The primary cause of choke in horses is the swallowing of food that’s either too dry, hasn’t been chewed enough, or that swells rapidly on contact with the horse’s saliva. For example, eating dry feed too quickly can block the oesophagus and cause choke. Also, unsoaked or inadequately soaked sugar beet is another classic cause as it tends to swell rapidly when mixed with saliva.
It can often be seen when horses are rushing to eat and swallow without chewing. Unfortunately, the initial obstruction is often made worse by further mouthfuls of food being eaten. These can pile up behind the blockage and form an even larger mass.
But it’s not only your horse’s normal feed that can cause a problem. Other things that can lead to choke include pieces of fruit or vegetable, pieces of wood or even wood shavings. This is particularly the case if there are other issues present such as dental problems.
As many people have been taking opportunities to get out into the countryside following the pandemic, horse owners have been encountering a serious problem. Well-meaning members of the public taking it upon themselves to feed horses inappropriate food has led to a big increase in choke.
Indeed, the consequences of giving what they think is harmless food could, in fact, prove fatal for some horses. For example, those who might be on controlled diets or susceptible to choking.
There have been far too many tragic incidents of horses and ponies becoming seriously ill or even dying as a result of being fed picnic leftovers, peanuts in their shells, or even whole raw potatoes. Such stories have been widely reported in the equestrian press during the coronavirus pandemic as more people took to the countryside for exercise.
This problem has resulted in organisations such as the British Horse Society (BHS) campaigning to raise awareness among the public of the dangers of doing this. The BHS’s Be Horse Aware is one such campaign.
They’ve got some great posters on their site that you can print and display to help encourage passers-by to respect the countryside code and not feed horses that don’t belong to them. While the Stop Feeding Our Horses Facebook group has also grown to over 10,000 members!
Even if a horse never leaves its home field it’s still vital to have horse insurance in place. So they can get the professional care and support they need if something like this happens.
Another underestimated reason for choke is if the horse is fed too soon after recovering from sedation or anaesthesia as they might not chew their food properly before swallowing. It’s a wise idea to give any drowsy horse time to return to normal alertness before giving them anything to eat.
Horses that have become dehydrated or even just exhausted also need to be given time to recover before eating. Make sure they drink plenty of water before they eat and that all feed is sloppy and easy to swallow, particularly when the horse is tired. Don’t let the fact you're in a hurry be the cause of a nasty experience for your equine friend.
If your horse suffers from choke repeatedly then it’s well worth speaking with a professional to find out if there’s an underlying cause. The most common culprits are feeding problems but once these are ruled out, it’s important to consider other possible causes of recurrent choke. These include:
- Dental issues
Whether sharp/worn teeth in older horses or loose/erupting teeth in younger horses, dental problems can often cause a horse to swallow food without adequate chewing. Read this guide to how to spot problems with your horse’s teeth. A bit of knowledge now could prevent a headache in the long run.
- Grass sickness
A rare but very complex and often fatal condition. Despite years of research, its cause is still unknown. The gut is the part of the horse most affected by the disease, severely affecting the horse’s ability to swallow and transport food.
- Some kind of obstruction or trauma
If there’s something pressing on the outside of the oesophagus then it could prevent the smooth passage of food down to the stomach. Other causes could be a neck injury causing swelling, abscesses, and even tumours. Or perhaps a pocket that has formed within the wall of the oesophagus called a diverticulum.
Sometimes it might just be that your horse is a bit greedy. There are certainly horses who just wolf down their food far too quickly and get it stuck. But on examination they have nothing medically wrong with them. We’ve got some tips down below on how to stop your horse feeding too quickly if this sounds like them!
Diagnosis of choke in horses
Based on observation of the horse, a diagnosis of choke is usually a straightforward process for a vet. However, to confirm the precise location of the obstruction a vet might sometimes use a stomach tube or even a flexible endoscope. This is a great way to enable direct observation of the obstruction itself or to check the area for damage after the obstruction has been shifted.
While the majority of cases sort themselves out without the need for veterinary attention, the risk of complications increases significantly the longer the obstruction lasts. Constrictions of the oesophagus from scar tissue or even a rupture can result from such blockages.
The main complication to arise from choke is aspiration pneumonia. This is where the horse has inhaled food and saliva into the lungs and then developed pneumonia. This can be difficult to treat and certainly has the potential to be very serious indeed. So, after an episode of choke you’ll need to monitor them closely for the next few days. Watch out for cough, fever or a runny nose. Call your equine vet right away if you notice these signs.
Having the right horse insurance on hand means that you can give your vet a call without the worry of a big bill at the end.
What to do if you think your horse has choke
Having adequate horse insurance and other cover means that you’ll be able to give your vet a call as soon as you notice any problems. So, if the choke has continued for any longer than a few minutes, then give them a call. But what can you do while you wait for your vet to arrive?
Knowing a few first aid tips is perhaps the number one way to reduce the risk of further complications. So, do this:
- Don’t panic. Many cases of choke actually resolve themselves.
- Don’t let your horse eat or drink anything else. You don’t want any more food entering the oesophagus and making matters worse.
- If possible, put the horse in their stable in an area with no hay or water and non-edible bedding.
- Keep the horse calm, quiet, and encourage them to stand with their head lowered. This will allow saliva to drain.
- Placing a field mate nearby may help to reassure them.
- Wipe away any discharge, but take a note of the colour, volume and consistency so you can report it to your vet. Taking photos can also be useful.
- If you see blood, foreign objects or anything other than food draining from your horse’s nose or mouth then call your vet and give an update.
- Let your vet know if the discharge stops or if the blockage appears to have cleared.
2 things NOT to do if your horse has choke
Do NOT squirt water into the horse’s mouth. This could find its way into the lungs and increase the likelihood of aspiration pneumonia.
Do NOT administer medications or home remedies. You may make the situation much worse and cause permanent damage to the lining of the oesophagus.
Treatment of choke in horses
Once the vet arrives what they do will depend on how long the choke has been going on for, how distressed the horse is, and whether they’re dehydrated. The majority of cases require very little treatment apart from a sedative to relax them and an antispasmodic drug to help the obstruction to pass down into the stomach.
Not every problem is solved so easily, and the vet may decide to use a stomach tube and even warm fluids to gently soften and move the blockage. If a horse has become dehydrated then fluids may need to be given via an intravenous drip. On very rare occasions a general anaesthetic is needed to shift a blockage using surgical procedures.
If your horse has had just one episode of choke then they’re likely to make a good recovery. However, you’ll probably be told to avoid giving them dry or fibrous foods for at least the next few days. This will reduce the chance of choke reoccurring or scarring at the site of the obstruction. Any respiratory infection should soon resolve, although antibiotics might need to be prescribed in some circumstances.
Some horses have recurring episodes of choke. These often require further investigation and treatment. For example, your horse might need an endoscopic examination of the oesophagus to look for tears or other injuries. Your vet may also recommend food management changes to help prevent choke from recurring.
How to prevent choke in horses?
While the diagnosis and treatment of choke is often straightforward, prevention is always better than cure.
For horses that have suffered from choke before, the most obvious ways to prevent a recurrence is to avoid dry feed and introduce ways to stop them from guzzling down their food.
Your Horse magazine has several useful suggestions including:
- Make sure you dampen your horse’s bucket feed to prevent dry food from swelling up and causing a blockage once swallowed.
- Any feed that needs soaking needs to be prepared according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Add a chaff to your horse’s bucket feed to slow eating. As well as upping fibre content this also encourages them to chew more, produce more saliva, and aids digestion.
- Split your horse’s daily feed into several smaller meals. They’ll get the same amount but not all at once.
- Put something that’s too big to eat, such as a large, flat stone, in your horse’s feed bucket so they can’t take large, greedy mouthfuls.
You could also try feeding the horse away from others so they don’t feel like they have to rush in case a field mate steals their food.
There are also lots of great food management tips on the BHS website. As well as providing plenty of healthy forage the BHS also advises the following:
- Feed your horse little but often.
- Never make sudden changes to their diet.
- Take things slow just after a feed.
- Feed them something succulent.
- Always provide plenty of fresh, clean water.
- Use only high-quality feed.
Remember, just like finding the right horse insurance, the key to a healthy horse is to treat them as an individual. Always feed according to body weight, workload and temperament.
Protect your horse from common health conditions with horse insurance
Choke is just one of the many health conditions that your beloved equine could suffer from in their long life with you. That’s why keeping horse insurance as simple and as straightforward as possible is so important.
The experienced team of insurance professionals at Equesure will always seek to find tailored cover that’s right for you and your equine friend. Cover arranged through us can include benefits such as:
- Vet’s fees cover up to £5,000.
- Personal dental cover available on some policies up to £1,750 if required.
- An additional benefit for insuring more than one horse.
- Saddlery and tack cover available.
- Horseboarding cover available.
- Personal accident cover up to £20,000.
- Public liability cover up to £3 million.
- Loss of use cover available with all insurers.
- EU cover/usage available.
- Cover for the death, theft or straying of your horse.
Call us for a quote for horse insurance today.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.