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Choke in horses is an obstruction in the esophagus, not an obstruction in the airway (trachea) like in people. It is still an emergency but the horse should be able to breathe without difficulty. Choke can be caused by swallowing objects that are too large to fit easily down the esophagus (such as apples or corn cobs), eating regular feeds such as grain and hay too quickly, or not being able to chew properly because of dental problems. A horse that is choking may stand with its head and neck extended. He will usually not eat or drink. Saliva and undigested food may be dripping out of his mouth and nostrils and he may cough or gag. Some horses appear anxious while others appear depressed.
A veterinarian should be contacted immediately so the choke can be resolved as quickly as possible, preventing complications such as dehydration, aspiration pneumonia and damage to the esophagus. The veterinarian will usually administer a sedative first to calm the horse. In some cases, this is all the treatment necessary to allow the esophagus to relax and pass the obstruction. Other times, specific muscle relaxants may also need to be given. A stomach tube may be passed through the nostrils into the esophagus and the impaction flushed with warm water to try and soften it. If these measures don't work, surgery may be necessary.
After the choke is corrected, horses will usually need to be on antibiotics and pain medicine. Soft food should be introduced slowly in multiple, small meals throughout the day. If the cause of the choke is known, steps should be taken to prevent it from happening again, such as preventing the horse from eating large objects, discouraging him from eating too quickly, and providing regular dental care.
About Dr. Lydia Gray