What is choke and what can I do about it?
Choke is one veterinary emergency that most horse owners have experienced. It’s quite alarming, and you will know instantly if your horse chokes. It’s important to understand that choke in horses is NOT the same as choke in humans. Horses choke when their esophagus is blocked (by food, usually). Horses can continue to breathe with choke as their airway is not obstructed. It's still an emergency!
Slow feeders help reduce the possibility of choke. They are available for hay and pelleted feeds!
Choke creates instant signs - you will see some or all of these:
- Standing still
- Your horse may stretch out his head and neck
- Your horse may gag and retch and make all sorts of weird noises
- He may try and spit out his food
- You may find drool and food bits coming out of his nose and/or mouth
This is NOT a time to “wait and see”. Call the Veterinarian!! Here’s why. The obstruction can cause damage to the esophagus. Swelling, soreness, ulcers, scars, and pneumonia can result. Pneumonia can happen if the saliva/food bit combo gets accidentally inhaled as it’s coming out of his nose. You will also need to monitor your horse closely for several days, as his traumatized esophagus will be more likely to choke again. (Keep reading for some tips!)
Any of those complications of choke can cause problems and repeat episodes in the future. What can you do to help prevent choke?
- Have regular dental examinations and floatings for your horse. Sharp, uneven, or painful teeth affect his chewing. Without properly chewed food, the risk of choke increases. Every six months when your Vet comes out to do booster vaccines, have him check those chompers. Address dental issues to give him a more comfortable mouth.
Soupy food is less likely to cause a choking episode in your horse.
- Watch your horse eat. Does he eat his hay super fast? What about his rations/grain/supplements? Is he trying to break some sort of eating speed record here? There are lots of things you can do to slow down his eating.
- Feed less food more often
- Add pasture grazing between “meals” to mimic a more natural routine
- Soak or steam his hay. This also reduces dust (better for his respiratory system) and can help reduce carbs in his diet for the metabolically challenged horse. It also makes his hay meals easy to chew. Added bonus if you soak hay - added water intake. For tips on soaking hay, read this gem of an article.
- Use haynets or slow feeders. This makes your horse take smaller bites, and mimics a pasture situation.
- Feed rations/grains/supplements as a smoothie by adding water. Most grains and pelleted feeds need some time (10 minutes or so?) to get soupy. You may need to add more water. It may be messy, but it reduces your chances of choke a bit. Again, you have the bonus of lots of water to help with hydration. Also break up his rations into multiple meals throughout the day.
- Adjust your buckets! Add BIG rocks to his buckets or tubs so that he needs to move the rocks around to get the food. We also had a great tip from one of our facebook peeps that suggested you can bolt nylon dog bones to the buckets or tubs. (Be sure to use rounded hardware and make sure the underside of your tub is smooth, too. Often a coating with silicone goo/caulk can cover any bolt butts.) There are also specially designed buckets out there that do the same thing.
- How are treats delivered to him? Do you give him whole apples/carrots? We all love to feed treats, but smaller bits are better. Slice your apples at home, and snap your carrots.
- Does he like to eat foreign objects? Take steps to prevent pica! Learn more here.
What have your experiences with choke been, and what do you do to prevent another episode?