Esophageal obstruction is a risk for some horses.
By Dr. Thomas R. Lenz in The American Quarter Horse Journal | February 17, 2010
Most horses’ grain or feed intake increases as weather temperatures decrease. Along with the increased feed intake, their risk of developing esophageal obstruction also increases. Esophageal obstruction, commonly called “choke,” occurs when anything a horse eats becomes lodged in his esophagus rather than moving freely into the stomach.
Nature designed horses to spend 14-18 hours a day grazing. Their digestive systems are designed to gradually take in small amounts of high-fiber grass, which is usually high in water. The problem with domestic horses is that they are usually fed concentrated feeds once or twice a day.
While any feed can cause choke, it most commonly involves small-particle feeds, such as grain, bran or pellets, rather than long-fiber feeds such as hay or forage.
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Improper chewing in older horses with poor teeth or in young horses with erupting teeth increases the risk of choke. If chewing becomes painful from sharp points on his teeth, a horse will try to swallow a mouthful of feed at once, rather than chewing it into smaller amounts. Decreased chewing time also decreases saliva production, which results in less lubrication for the feed as it is swallowed.
How Does Choke Happen?
A horse chokes after he has swallowed food, and therefore the obstruction doesn’t block the airways. The result is that although he cannot complete the swallowing process, he can still breathe normally until help arrives. In people, the obstruction occurs in the back of the throat where the esophagus and trachea are very close together. A choking person can’t swallow and can’t breathe.
The Six Signs
The early clinical signs of a choked horse often aren’t very dramatic. Once feed becomes impacted in the esophagus, the horse:
- Stops eating and might stretch his neck in an attempt to swallow.
- Some horses open and close their mouths frequently or act uncomfortable.
- Some tolerate the condition and continue eating, which increases the size of the obstruction.
Because none of the blocked feed or saliva can pass down into the horse’s stomach, saliva and food particles will eventually completely fill the esophagus and begin to drip from the horse’s mouth and nostrils. Probably the most consistent sign of choke is green fluid (saliva mixed with pelleted feed or hay particles) dripping from the horse’s nostrils. Some choked horses become anxious and nervous at not being able to swallow their feed and might colic in response to the choke.
Because the obstruction applies constant pressure to the esophageal wall and can cause tissue death as well as rupture the esophagus, choke is a true emergency. While an occasional case might resolve itself, most require veterinary intervention and respond well if treated promptly.
While waiting for your veterinarian to arrive, remove all feed and water. Try to relax the horse, and place him in a stall to prevent grazing. Treatment consists of tranquilizing the horse and using a nasogastric (stomach) tube to either push the obstruction down into the stomach or to repeatedly flush the obstruction with warm water to break it down. Small chokes can usually be easily relieved, while harder, larger obstructions can take several hours to break down.
Surgery is indicated in cases where the obstruction cannot be relieved with a stomach tube. If the obstruction persists for several hours, anti-inflammatory drugs might be used to control the pain and decrease swelling within the esophagus. A choked horse can also become dehydrated and require intravenous fluids. Aspiration of saliva and feed occurs in some choked horses and could lead to aspiration pneumonia.
Check the horse’s temperature for several days following the choke to ensure that he isn’t developing pneumonia.
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