What to do if your horse gets choke!

Choke is a common equine emergency and the team at Ridings Equine Vets have been seeing a spike of cases over the last few weeks. While the majority of chokes are straightforward it is vital horse owners are aware what to do if their horse has choke to avoid any potentially fatal complications.

The first thing to do if your horse has choke is not to panic! Most cases of choke will resolve quickly. Unlike when humans choke, in horses there is no airway obstruction so they are still able to breath and there is no immediate threat to their life.

Remove all food and water. If your horse is at pasture bring them into a stable or feed shelter with no food. Do not let them eat or drink anything, including bedding. Some choking horses continue to eat and this only increases the size of the blockage. If you have any doubt your horse might be choking, remove food to be on the safe side.

Try to keep your horse calm. If they are behaving anxious, try to bring a companion close by to help them settle. A stressed horse will be tense and the muscles need to relax to enable the blocked food to pass. If possible encourage them to lower their heads.

If the choke has not passed within 10 minutes call your vet! This is very important. The most life threatening complication with choke is aspiration pneumonia which is where the horse inhales some of the saliva and food that is coming back up the oesophagus due to the blockage. Often this is also coming down the horses nose. The risk of aspiration pneumonia increases with the length of time the horse has been choking.

NEVER LEAVE A HORSE CHOKING FOR MORE THAN 20 MINUTES WITHOUT CALLING THE VET.

When the vet arrives they will administer a muscle relaxant to reduce the spasm around the oesophagus that causes the muscles to clamp the blockage. We will then give a sedative to lower the horses head, followed by passing a stomach tube to encourage the blockage to pass. In most simple chokes this is enough to clear the choke.

In choke that has been going on for a prolonged period of time, or whereby the horse has continued to eat after getting choke then we may need to lavage the blockage with water. This can take several hours depending on the nature of the choke and increases the risk of aspiration pneumonia – the best way to prevent this is calling the vet as soon as possible.

While waiting for the vet, NEVER force water down your horses mouth! I have had clients do this with syringes and hosepipes – this will not clear a choke! But it will hugely increase the risk of aspiration pneumonia which may result in death.

DO NOT try to give your horse any medication such as ‘bute’. This will not work and will only increase the size of the blockage.

Endoscope image of an oesophagus following a bad episode of choke demonstrating the damage to the lining of the oesophagus

Following an episode of choke:

  • The risk of choke is higher for the 24-48 hours following an episode of choke due to swelling and inflammation of the oesophagus – therefore only feed sloppy feeds and grass – no hay as this increases the likelihood of a repeat choke.
  • Monitor your horse very closely for signs of a nasal discharge, cough or a high temperature – if you see any of these signs contact your vet immediately as they may be an indication your horse is suffering from aspiration pneumonia.
  • If you know the cause of the choke try to avoid the same feed/reason.
  • Have your horses mouth checked to ensure there are no dental problems that may have contributed to your horse choking.
  • If your horse suffers frequent episodes of choke contact your vet for further investigations to eliminate other causes such as a mass or tumour in the throat or oesophagus.

If you have any questions about choke or are worried about your horse please do not hesitate to contact us on 07747771182 or info@ridingsequinevets.co.uk

Jenny (Veterinary Surgeon, Ridings Equine Vets)