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Handling a Choking Horse
All animals can choke, including horses. When it happens, it should be considered a medical emergency. A horse chokes when its esophagus is obstructed, rather than the trachea, or windpipe. Although horses are still able to breathe in this situation, it is important to contact a veterinarian right away.
"When horses choke, it is because something has gotten stuck in their esophagus," said Debra Sellon, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, a professor of Equine Medicine at Washington State University. "Usually it is something that they tried to eat, such as pellets, hay, corn cobs, apples, or pears. It is actually pretty common, and one of the most common conditions that veterinarians are called out to look at."
"When it happens, don't wait to see if the horse gets better on its own," Sellon said. "Most choking horses that are caught early and treated appropriately will come out fine. If they are not treated and the obstruction remains, life-threatening problems can occur, such as severe pneumonia, and ruptures, tears, and holes in their esophagus."
Choking horses display symptoms immediately. Many extend their head and neck straight forward, retch, and gag. Others stand still, not eating or drinking, with saliva and undigested food coming out their mouth or nose.
"Often the horse will look like it is in quite severe distress," Sellon said. "Material usually comes out their mouth and nose. If the material goes down their trachea and lungs, that will set them up for a case of pneumonia."
If a horse is found in this condition, an owner should immediately remove all food and water to make sure the horse doesn't try to ingest more and make the problem worse. It might also help to encourage the horse to stand with its head down so it doesn't aspirate material into the lungs while waiting for a veterinarian.
When the veterinarian arrives, he or she can sedate the horse to relax the esophagus enough to allow the obstruction to pass on its own. Many times, this will take care of the problem. Depending on the situation, a veterinarian may also pass a stomach tube down the horse's throat to find the obstruction and lavage it with water to help it break up and pass.
"If the choke has been there for a couple of days, the horse may be dehydrated and the blockage might have caused ulcerations and erosion of the esophagus," Sellon said. "This can set the horse up to choke again over the next several days after the initial episode."
To avoid reoccurrence, start a recovered horse on feed slowly. Anti-inflammatory drugs can also help horses with an inflamed esophagus, along with feeding easy-to-swallow foods, such as pellets or beet pulp soaked in water.
"Choking can happen to any horse at any time, but it may be more prevalent in older horses that can't chew their food as well," Sellon said. "Some horses also choke repeatedly. If this happens, have the horse examined to see what is causing them to do it. Some may have dental problems, like sharp points or missing or painful teeth. Others are greedy eaters, and it may be best to change the way they are fed, such as feeding them alone or putting large rocks in their feed pan to slow them down."
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Horses can also be checked for tumors in the esophagus or scarring from previous episodes of choking if they are repeat offenders. Regular dental exams, especially for senior horses, can also help with prevention.
For more information about choking or, for horse owners in the area, in case of an emergency, contact the Sapulpa Equine Hospital at 918 224-6867.
Reprinted from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine Equine News Spring 2008 issue.