Choke

Choke is a blockage of the oesophagus (also known as the gullet – the tube which food passes down from the mouth to the stomach). It is not a blockage of the trachea (windpipe) unlike “choke” in humans. It can be very distressing for the owners, but it often passes without any veterinary intervention. Chokes are rarely fatal, however any episode which last over two hours should always be seen by a vet.

Further Advice

Common Questions

What causes choke?

Blockages are typically caused by food such as unsoaked sugar beet pulp or pieces of carrot and apple but can be caused by many different things. Horses with choke usually have a frothy discharge from both nostrils – this may be white or green or food coloured (this is a mixture of saliva and food that has not passed down into the stomach).

They often make repeated attempts to swallow and may stretch their necks out, or may appear to have “spasms” of the neck.

What are the symptons of choke?

Horses with choke usually have a frothy discharge from both nostrils – this may be white or green or food coloured (this is a mixture of saliva and food that has not passed down into the stomach). They often make repeated attempts to swallow and may stretch their necks out, or may appear to have “spasms” of the neck.

Some horses with choke may cough (often coughing out saliva). Horses may appear anxious but should not show signs of colic such as rolling.

How is choke treated?

Horses with choke are usually given drugs to relax their oesophagus, and may be given sedative or tranquilliser drugs to keep them calm and encourage them to keep their heads low (which helps the saliva to drain from the nose and reduces the risk of food and saliva being inhaled into the windpipe).

In some cases horses are given antibiotics to protect them from developing lung infections. In many cases, these are the only treatments necessary because most choke cases will resolve spontaneously if left long enough (although this can take more than 24 hours in some cases).

If the choke fails to clear with these conservative treatments, it may sometimes be necessary to pass a stomach tube and attempt to gradually lavage (wash out) the obstruction. This procedure can sometimes be done standing under sedation, but in other cases it may be necessary to perform the lavage under a brief general anaesthetic.

In long standing choke cases it may also be necessary to administer intravenous fluids and electolytes if the horse is becoming dehydrated.

Can there be complications?

Most cases resolve without complications and horses that have had choke should be bright and act normally the following day. Rarely, horses can develop pneumonia after having choke if they inhale some food or saliva into the lungs. In rare cases the oesophagus can also form a permanent narrowing (stricture) after having choke – this may predispose the horse to further choke episodes.