QI have a seven-year-old gelding who I have owned since he was six months. He is calm and healthy and has his teeth done regularly with no issues; however, he suffers from choke.
There have been three separate occasions where a vet has needed to pass a stomach tube in to his oesophagus to clear the blockage. The episodes have generally occurred while or after he has been eating hay, even soaked hay or haylage.
A few times he has had symptoms while eating hard feed which have resolved themselves without vet treatment.
I have tried using ‘greedy feeder’ haynets, putting large flat stones in his feed bucket and making his feeds very sloppy, but am still nervous that it’s going to happen again. He is not fed hay at all now and I worry when feeding him hard feed, but need to supplement him during the winter months or he loses condition. He is paddocked with others but at feed time he’s top of the pecking order so never gets hassled.
Any suggestions on what and how I can feed him, or what might be causing these recurring issues would be greatly appreciated. Freya, via email
Vet Dave replies:
Choke occurs when a bolus of food becomes lodged in the oesophagus and is unable to pass through into the stomach. This can either occur when a horse bolts food greedily or if they do not chew correctly.
You are entirely correct in your approach to slow his eating speed through the use of restrictive hay nets, stones in feed bowls and wet food. Any and all of these and their variations on a theme will limit feeding speed and/or reduce the chance of feed getting stuck.
Thought you have mentioned his teeth, it is worth looking into this further. Poor dentition will reduce his ability to grind feed into smaller pieces. Aside from this being an essential part of the digestive process, ensuring maximum digestibility of any food eaten, smaller food particles make a more malleable bolus which is thus more tractable to swallowing and passing down to the stomach.
If he continues to choke it would be worthwhile passing a scope through his nose into the back of his throat. From here, your veterinarian can observe the structures at the back of the throat, stimulate and check a normal swallow reflex, and pass down into the oesophagus to check that it is normal. Occasionally a horse may have a diverticulum in their oesophagus which promotes the formation of a choke: this should be seen with endoscopy.
Nutritionist Lucy replies:
From a feed point of view, you seem to have tried all the tricks available to slow him down! I would focus on particle size – if he is not chewing sufficiently, as it appears, and hence is getting blockages, then feeding a finer particle diet would be one tactic to try. Perhaps a soaked sugar beet shred or similar.
You certainly need a fibre source going into him to maintain his hind gut function. Perhaps soaked grass nuts, which have small particle size, could help.
I assume he is okay with grass? If that is the case then perhaps he will need to only be on grass as his main forage source, which may be hard to achieve in the winter.
Animals who have undergone periods of feed shortage can sometime develop bad habits where they eat way too fast. In that case, perhaps feeding little and often ‘may’ resolve things for him to be more confident that food isn’t going to be removed for long periods.
However, if his grazing is not causing an issue, I would focus on that with some backup of a soaked pelletised hard feed, which will have smaller particles that could help remove a major cause of the choke. Good luck. ■