Esophageal obstruction is when food (or bedding and other foreign material) are swallowed and get stuck in between the back of the mouth and the stomach. There are two tubes that lead out of the mouth, one for food (the esophagus) and one for air (the trachea).
Most commonly this occurs at the beginning of the esophagus just behind the mouth, or just before the end of the neck. This can often be figured out just by watching your horse. Horses typically cough repeatedly and often retch, have food or saliva coming out of their nose, and frequently try to swallow.
A veterinarian will attempt to pass a nasogastric tube into your horse’s nose and into their stomach. In many cases, the choke will have resolved before the veterinarian gets there, but in slightly more severe cases this will push the obstruction into the stomach and resolve the choke. In very severe cases the tube will not be able to pass beyond the obstruction. Further confirmation can be achieved using a camera to actually see the obstruction, but this depends on the situation.
In all cases a veterinarian should come to examine the horse, but as soon as choke is recognized the horse should be muzzled with food and water taken away. Often veterinarians will give drugs to the horse to help relax the esophagus and let the horses head drop. Then the nasogastric tube can be used to pump water into the esophagus in an effort to soften the obstruction. The low head helps to prevent food and water from going into the lungs, one of the most common long-term severe complications to choke. Multiple attempts may be required with long
After the obstruction is resolved about half of horses have some sort of complication. Video endoscopy can be use to evaluate the esophagus and look for signs that might cause long term problems. Certain drugs can coat damaged areas promoting healing while nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories can help reduce inflammation.
Horses are often kept off of food for a period of time depending on how severe the damage is. Grass is often fed quickly because it is soft, while hay is often withheld longer to prevent continued damage to injured areas.
Prevention of obstruction involves fairly simple changes. You may slow how fast your horse eats by adding rocks large enough that they can’t be eaten to their food. You can try to prevent dry food from becoming lodged by al-ways providing water to your horse. And of course one of the most important steps is to have regular health check-ups by your veterinarian including a dental examination and correction of poor dentition (“floating teeth”). Bad teeth can lead to obstruction by making your horse swallow very large pieces of food, which can be more likely to lodge in the esophagus.
In most cases, choke is readily identified and treated quickly. You and your horse will hopefully be back to work quickly.