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Emergency Care: CHOKE!

   Choke is an "urgent" matter, though not as much as an emergency for a horse as it is for a human. Horses' anatomy is such that they don't breath through their mouths and a horse suffering from choke doesn't have the airways shut off the same as with us. However, it can be very stressful and should be remedied promptly.
 Choke in horses is usually a blockage of the upper esophagus that blocks the passage of food to the stomach and the horse is still able to breathe. The blockage can occur from large pieces of food being swallowed as in hay cubes, or in soft foods that swell when they are moistened (beet pulp pellets) if not pre-moistened. Horses with a diminished capacity to chew due to dental problems and age are at higher risk than younger animals. Horses that are fed in "meals" are also at higher risk as they try to "bolt" or eat quickly, due to a starvation period each day that does not agree with the horse's digestive system that requires frequent small intakes of feed.



  Symptoms include:
      * Refusal to eat or drink
      * Holding head in odd manner or flexing neck and "burping"  or groaning
      * Foul breath odor
      * Discharge from nose that looks like grain or bits of hay/feed or even looks like manure
      * Dehydration (from not drinking if in "choke " for hours or days
      * Hard swallowing attempts. Like cartoon characters swallowing the lumps in their throats in stress, the horse will exaggerate his swallowing attempts.
Choke occurs because of a mechanical blockage, but the horse's throat will tend to seize shut around the mass. This is why it's important to treat quickly. The longer the muscles are locked up, the more damage is done by dehydration, stress and the risk of colic and residual effects include a sore throat and being unwilling to eat for a few days, or even pneumonia from some of the food coming back out of his nose and being aspirated (inhaled).  While your horse can breathe, he may panic, further adding to the muscle spasm. It's a good idea to call the vet, then attempt to clear the blockage yourself while you wait, or keep the horse quiet and do not feed him more! This could add to the blockage.



  Choke is preventable in most cases.

     * Dental Care: Regular exams and floating as needed will prevent many health concerns in horses, even some training issues. If the teeth can't do their job, the horse can't swallow his food properly, either.

      * Soaking high risk foods: Beet Pulp (esp. pellets) and hay cubes and certain psyllium based colic prevention supplements can swell to large volume when wet. If not pre-soaked before giving to the horse, the food may swell up as it combines with saliva, then block the throat. Horses with dental issues may also need food soaked regardless of type.

     *  Slow, gradual feeding: Horses that sit for hours with nothing to eat will tend to "bolt" feed and not chew properly from feeling starved. Leaving plenty of hay to nibble on throughout the day can stop the fast/famine feeling that promotes bolting. Adding water will slow consumption, too.



   Choke is treatable if caught early by the caretaker. Steps to take:

         * Feel the throat for large lumps in the neck. Massage the area gently, be sure not to squeeze the airway.

         * Flush the mouth with a hose. Preferably tepid water, not cold (espcially in winter)  that can cause the muscles to spasm, but if you only have cold water, then it can work if needed. Insert a hose with the metal coupler cut off (he will probably bite it, pinching off water flow or damaging teeth) and shove it as far as you can into the mouth and use moderate to low water pressure. The water and food will be coming back out on you, so be prepared. Keep massaging the throat and elevate the head as you flush the mouth. I have propped their head on my shoulder while massaging and that seemed to help them relax the muscles and swallow. The water will also help soften the blockage, and either flush it on down, or come back out on you.

   * If the horse is still struggling or not making any progress, or just for peace of mind, call the vet. The vet can prescribe some pain meds, muscle relaxers and check for damage in the digestive tract and make sure the blockage is truely gone.