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I'm all choked up

written by University of Florida Veterinary Student, Monica Calderon

“Choke,” or an esophageal obstruction, is a common equine emergency that occurs when feed matter gets suck in the esophagus. Concentrated feed is usually the culprit, but obstruction can also occur with dried alfalfa cubes and large quantities of dried beet pulp. Horses without proper dental care or horses that bolt their feed are also prone to choke.

A choked horse may have the following symptoms:

1. Not interested in food

2. Feed material coming out of nose and mouth

3. Hypersalivating

4. Retching

5. Coughing

6. Neck stretched out

7. Appear uncomfortable or “colicky”

If you suspect your horse is having an episode of choke, the first thing to do is remain calm. Although your horse may act distressed and painful when this occurs, it is important to remember that the airway is not blocked and that the horse can breathe. Just as it is important for you to remain calm, do what you can to keep your horse calm by walking them around, or keeping them in a calm confined environment. Remove access to any feed material, including grass and hay, as this will add more material to the stuck food bolus and increase your risk for aspiration. Please do not administer any oral medications or use a water hose to clear the choke, as this increases the risk for aspiration pneumonia as well. While choke can be a serious emergency, with proper owner management many choke cases will resolve on their own

If you are unsure of when symptoms started, or if the horse does not improve within 1 hour, it is necessary to call your primary veterinarian. With more time passed, more inflammation will cause the esophagus to become more fragile and more likely to tear. Therefore, early veterinary involvement can help prevent complications like pneumonia or esophageal rupture.

On arrival, we will perform a physical exam to assess the overall health status of your horse. Once we confirm your horse is choked, we will administer medications to relax both the esophagus and your horse. We will then gently pass a nasogastric tube and flush small amounts of water into the esophagus to break up the obstruction and encourage passage into the stomach. This must be performed under sedation with the head held low otherwise the horse will aspirate.

Following resolution, we will begin your horse on a course of antibiotics to prevent infection and an anti-inflammatory to bring down the esophageal inflammation. You will need to monitor your horses’ temperature for the next few days as fever is a common sign of pneumonia. Typically, we will ask that you restrict hay for the next several days and feed a soupy mash to rest the esophagus and allow it to heal.

While an esophageal obstruction can be a scary emergency, we hope that with this information and a strong client-veterinarian relationship, it’ll be something you won’t get all choked up about.


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