Choke is not an uncommon occurrence in horses and it can be very distressing for both the horse and the owner when it does develop. Horses choke when food gets stuck in the oesophagus - which is the tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. It is not due to something being stuck in the trachea - which is the windpipe through which the horse breathes.
There are a number of causes for choke and these include: horses swallowing whole large pieces of carrots or apples, eating un-soaked sugar beet, horses with poor teeth that are not able to chew their food normally, excited or greedy horses that swallow without chewing properly, horses post exercise that have a dry oesophagus and choke if given a haynet and very rarely, it can be due to tumours or strictures in the oesophagus.
The clinical signs the horse will show can vary widely. Some horses will be very calm and show only mild drooling and neck spasms and may continue to try and eat. Others will get very distressed and show signs of coughing, gagging, grunting, sweating and may make frantic neck stretching and arching movements. Drool, containing saliva and feed, may also be visible from the mouth and nostrils. Depending on the level of the choke, it is possible that you may sometimes be able to palpate the lump of feed down the neck.
The important thing to remember is not to panic. Most horses actually relieve the obstruction on their own within an hour. Move your horse to a stable without food, water or edible bedding and give them time for the condition to resolve. It might be worth ringing the Sussex Equine Hospital to warn us that you might need a call if the situation doesn’t improve. If the horse calms down and the nasal discharge reduces, this usually means that the horse has recovered. You can then offer a very small amount of soft wet feed to test if the horse can swallow normally. If the horse is still showing signs of choke after an hour you should call the hospital and request a visit.
There are a number of ways your vet might treat your horse's choke and this will vary according to the type of feed involved, the duration of the choke and how your horse is behaving. Sometimes, just giving some sedation and muscle relaxants are enough for the horse to relax and release the choke. If this does not work then a stomach tube might be passed to try and push the feed down. Occasionally, under heavy sedation and with the horse's head hanging very low, warm water will be flushed through the stomach tube to wash the feed out of the horse's nose and clear the obstruction. It is rare that horses will be required to come into the hospital and have a general anaesthetic to be able to clear the blockage.
Depending on the severity and duration of the choke, some horses might require anti-inflammatories and antibiotics to prevent pneumonia from accidental aspiration of the saliva and feed. Your horse should be left with water only and not be fed for a duration of time recommended by your vet (this could be up to 12 to 24 hours). The horse may then be fed small quantities of soft wet feed or grass and gradually returned to a normal diet. Obviously if bad teeth or a particular cause has been identified then this should be treated and managed appropriately.