Preventing choke in horses
- 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), and humans choke when there is something lodged in the airway.
- Horses can continue to breathe with choke as their airway is not obstructed. Some horses will get food and saliva in their nose, which is its own set of problems.
Slow feeders help reduce the possibility of choke. They are available for hay and pelleted feeds.
Choke creates instant signs of danger – you will see some or all of these:
- Your horse is standing still. While this does happen, it shouldn’t happen when your horse is eating.
- Your horse may stretch out his head and neck, looking for some relief.
- Your horse may gag and retch and make all sorts of weird noises. This is his way of trying to move the offending blockage.
- 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:
- 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 after an incidence, as his traumatized esophagus will be more likely to choke again. That swelling from the initial blockage makes it harder to swallow.
- Any of those complications of choke can cause problems and repeat episodes in the future.
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 over more meals. Spread it all out!
- Add pasture grazing between “meals” to mimic a more natural routine
More ideas for the prevention of choke
- Soak or steam your horse’s 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 hay nets or slow feeders. This makes your horse take smaller bites and mimics a pasture situation.
- Add water to as much food as you can – make a smoothie! 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 about why horses eat weird things here.
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