Choke (Esophageal Obstruction)

The word choke for me conjures up images of someone hovering over a table, unable to talk or breathe because a piece of food has lodged in their trachea or windpipe–fortunately, the Heimlich maneuver usually rectifies the situation. Choke is

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The word choke for me conjures up images of someone hovering over a table, unable to talk or breathe because a piece of food has lodged in their trachea or windpipe–fortunately, the Heimlich maneuver usually rectifies the situation. Choke is also used to describe a condition in horses, although it’s a bit of a misnomer. The term choke in the horse refers to an esophageal obstruction, not an airway (tracheal) obstruction. Therefore, it is not an immediately life-threatening emergency. However, complications with choke include aspiration pneumonia, scarring in the esophagus, and potential rupture of the esophagus. If not corrected, it will kill the horse because the obstruction prevents the horse from eating or drinking. Unfortunately for horses, the Heimlich maneuver will not resolve the problem, but there are other treatments available. In this article, we will discuss the causes of choke, how they are treated, which horses are predisposed to choke, and what can be done to prevent it. It is best to prevent choke, since the complications related with treating it can cause more problems for the horse.

Causes


Choke is the most common esophageal disorder in horses. Horses can become choked on many different substances, most commonly grain or hay, but also beet pulp, corn cobs, and apples. Small horses or foals can choke on conglomerated shavings (stuck together chunks), while dangerously inquisitive horses have even been known to unsuccessfully swallow riding crops.


It’s clear that overly large or bulky items won’t make it down a horse’s esophagus into the stomach. But why do horses choke on feed? Some feeds expand after they become moistened with saliva. Pelleted feed and beet pulp expand quite a bit after getting wet. So, if a horse takes a large swallow of dry pellets or beet pulp and it mixes with saliva, it can expand enough to become lodged in the esophagus.



This can also happen with hay. Horses can swallow large portions of hay not properly chewed first. The bolus of hay can then become lodged in the esophagus

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Written by:

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, New York. He was an FEI veterinarian and worked internationally with the United States Equestrian Team. He died in 2014.

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