The Choking Horse

The Choking Horse

Tuesdays with Tony

You’re walking through the barn doing one last check of all the horses after their evening feed when you notice one horse has stepped away from his feed bucket. You inspect the feed and notice that some feed has been consumed but the majority is remaining. Upon further observation you realize your horse is not showing signs of colic, but he is holding his head down with his neck stretched out and makes the occasional gag-like sound.  Then you see it, the feed and saliva material coming out of your horse’s nose and you know that you are dealing with a choke.

Most of the time, when my docs are called out to the farm for a choke, they are able to easily resolve the choke, or it has already resolved on its own when they get there. On rare occasion, the docs have enlisted my help here at the clinic when a choke cannot be resolved easily on the farm, so sit back, relax and let the master explain it all.

What is a choke?

Unlike cats (and people), in horses, choke refers to something that is obstructing the esophagus and thus does not block the horse’s airway. Choke is most commonly caused by feed material; however, foreign material cannot be ruled out as a potential cause. Cats, being the more intelligent life form, know better than to eat something that isn’t food, unless its string of course, then all bets are off, string is the best toy EVER!

What are the signs of choke?

I am a stickler for good hygiene, my counterpart Teeny on the other hand, sometimes forgets to groom herself. Of course, I am always well kept and have my coat groomed to perfection. Unfortunately, this makes me prone to hairballs. If you have ever seen a cat hack up a hairball, it is not a pretty sight, believe you me. Well, much like the retched sound us kitties make when hacking up a hairball, if your horse is choked you may notice that he makes a gagging, hacking, coughing sound. He may have suddenly backed away from his feed while appearing anxious or nervous. You may even start to notice salvia and feed material coming from your horse’s mouth and nostrils. Sometimes horses will extend their neck and hold their head low. The signs of choke can be quite alarming, even for a brave cat like myself, but remember, panicking is not going to do anyone any good, so keep calm and call the office so my staff can walk you through what to do next.

What causes choking?

I see no problem with inhaling my food as fast as I possibly can, in fact, if I eat mine fast enough, I can sometimes get seconds because my minions think they forgot to feed me! Seems like a win-win to me. I guess for horses though, eating too quickly, or bolting their feed, is the primary cause of choke. Horses need to chew and moisten their feed thoroughly before swallowing and if they don’t, it may cause them to choke. Similarly, certain feed materials such as alfalfa cubes or beet pulp, must be pre-moistened with water prior to feeding. If not, and they are fed dry, your horse may be predisposed to choke. I recommend soaking alfalfa cubes and beet pulp in a bucket of water for at least 20 minutes prior to feeding. Your horse will get more water and be less prone to choke, another win-win for the books.

Occasionally, some horses may have conditions that predispose them to choke, including diverticulum and stricture. A diverticulum is a deviation of the esophagus that forms a pouch or sac in which feed material can become trapped, resulting in a choke. Strictures are basically a scar within the esophagus and can be caused by prior choke episodes that have caused damage to the lining of the esophagus. Strictures do not allow the esophagus to expand and contract normally and therefore may cause feed material to get stuck.

Why is choking a problem?

You’re probably thinking, if my horse can breathe, what’s the big deal with choke? Won’t it resolve on its own eventually? Here’s the thing, most chokes will resolve on their own, or with very little assistance from my docs.  On that rare occasion though, chokes can be very serious and lead to very serious problems including dehydration, colic, and aspiration pneumonia. The longer a horse is choked, the more likely these complications will arise and the more likely you’ll be in to visit me at the clinic.  While I would love for you all to come visit me, I would prefer if you leave your horses at home so you are able to give me your undivided attention. So, what does that mean? It means, if you suspect that your horse is choked or may have choked recently, call me, I’ll get my docs on the case and out to see your horse ASAP, leaving you plenty of time to come visit me.

Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic

How is choke treated?

The first thing my docs will tell you when you call, is to remove your horse’s feed, hay, and water. Next, they will instruct you to keep your horse as calm as possible with his head down until they arrive. Upon arrival, my docs will perform a brief physical exam on your horse, they will check his heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, and listen for guts sounds. They will determine if your horse is still choked and then decide how to proceed.

Next, they will likely provide your horse with a little sedative. I never need any sedative to sleep, put me in the sun and I am out cold for a good 14 hours of my day, but I digress. My docs will also give your horse a smooth muscle relaxer to help decrease the contractions of the esophagus. We have all seen a tube passed for a colic, right? Well, you’ll also see the tube pulled out if your horse is choked. Once your horse is sedated and muscle relaxants are on board, the docs will pass a nasogastric tube up your horse’s nose and into his esophagus. This allows them to locate the blockage as well as lavage the obstruction with water.

Let me tell you something, I will never be a Coca-Cola-drinking cat again. The other day, I saw one of the docs at the clinic lavage a very stubborn choke with Coca-Cola. And you know what? It worked! That is some powerful stuff! This by no means, means that you can accomplish the same thing by sticking a hose down your horse’s throat or have him drink Coca-Cola! Remember, my docs are highly trained professionals and these medications and procedures should only be administered and performed by licensed veterinarians. If you do it wrong, like sending the tube into the lungs, you can injure or kill your horse.

What is the after-care for choke?

Most chokes that resolve easily do not require any specific care. My docs will recommend that you feed your horse soaked grain from now on. Once your horse has one episode of choke, he is likely to have more. Thus, by soaking his feed, you will reduce the risk of repeat chokes. If your horse has been choked for several hours or has a choke that is difficult to resolve, the docs will likely put your horse on a course of antibiotics to help combat any possibility of the development of aspiration pneumonia.

If your horse seems to be dehydrated or showing signs of colic, the docs may refer him to me here at the clinic for intravenous fluids and careful monitoring. Of course, once your horse arrives here, I will give you, him, your truck and your trailer a full courtesy “cat” scan, it’s just what I do for my people. Fortunately, most of the time, chokes are easily resolved and after care is minimal.

In case you just miss me, and want to come visit, but don’t want your horse to choke to accomplish that, remember, our next seminar on First Aid will be at 6:30 pm on April 11th. It will of course be featuring yours truly, so come on out and get your Tony fix while learning all about first aid for your horse.

Until next week,

~ Tony

Tuesdays with Tony is the official blog of Tony the Clinic Cat at Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic in Newberry, Florida. If you liked this blog, please subscribe below, and share it with your friends on social media! For more information, please call us at (352) 472-1620, visit our website at, or follow us on Facebook!

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