Dysphagia in Horses Difficult to Diagnose

Dysphagia in Horses Difficult to Diagnose

Fjeldborg explained that there are more than 100 possible causes for dysphagia--the inability to swallow--in horses.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Your horse is standing with his head down, drooling, and his food has barely been touched. He looks like he could be experiencing choke, but before you jump the gun it is important to realize that there could be more than one explanation. In fact, according to Danish veterinarians, there are more than 100 possible causes for dysphagia--the inability to swallow--in horses.

"Dysphagia is a relatively common disorder and can be either congenital or acquired; the definition of dysphagia involves difficulty in swallowing but often used more broadly to describe problems with eating," explained Julie Fjeldborg, DVM, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Faculty of Life Science at the University of Copenhagen, at the 12th Congress of The World Equine Veterinary Association, held Nov. 2-6 in Hyderabad, India.

Dysphagia encompasses problems associated with moving food into the mouth (prehension), chewing (mastication), and transporting the food down the esophagus, as well as problems actually associated with swallowing, Fjeldborg said.

According to Fjeldborg and colleague Keith Baptiste, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, ECEIM, also from the University of Copenhagen, dysphagia causes can be congenital (such as a cleft palate), acquired (including dental problems or drug-related side effects), or part of a multisystemic condition that could be associated with either a muscular or neurologic disease. Some examples of this latter category include equine protozoal myeloencephalitis, white muscle disease, and polysaccharide storage myopathy, among others.

"A thorough clinical examination is a must, but sometimes it can be difficult to find the cause for dysphagia," emphasized Fjeldborg. In fact, in some cases, a cause is never found.

Nonetheless, some important points to consider when attempting to diagnose the cause of a horse's dysphagia include the following:

  • Rabies is a cause of dysphagia, and personal safety must be a priority when potentially dealing with this zoonotic disease;
  • Horses with dysphagia are at risk for developing aspiration pneumonia and should be monitored closely for coughing, nasal discharge, and abnormal respiration;
  • Distinguish between dysphagia and anorexia; horses with dysphagia can continue to drink and have voracious appetites but can't eat, whereas anorexic horses are not interested in eating or drinking;
  • Endoscopy is an invaluable tool for ruling in or out a large number of conditions of the oral cavity, guttural pouches, trachea, and the first half of the esophagus; and
  • Treatment is highly variable and dependent upon the underlying cause.

A full summary of the presentation titled "Diagnosis and Treatment of Dysphagia" will be available for free on the International Veterinary Information System.

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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