Choke is a blockage of the esophagus in larger animals such as cows, horses and llamas. It has nothing to do with choking in humans, nothing to do with breathing although in serious cases breathing can be affected.
I have had several cases of choke in the past - once in a horse and twice in a llama. In the case of the horse, Vic, the choke was part of his 18 hour decline from old and healthy to dead. It was a cascade of things going wrong, one after the other, that lead to his demise and I'm not sure exactly how important the choke was in the final outcome. He was showing neurologic symptoms so his head was taken to verify he did not have rabies. It was a very sad day and I'm so pleased that my vet, Dr. Michael Ridlen, could be here to help.
One or other of the llamas have choked twice in the past. Both times they resolved on their own. They gave me a huge scare but everything turned out fine. So was the case of choke that happened this week. Per my vet, llamas are more likely to resolve choke on their own than horses or cows. They produce much more saliva and the enzymes in the saliva help to break up the blockage of pellets.
I had put all the animals in the barn so we could pull fecal samples and check for parasite load. They had been in their stalls for only about 30 minutes when I walked back into the barn with the ladies from Dr. Ridlen's veterinary office. Tucker was in full choke swing. He had decorated the walls with a spray of food and spit and was clearly in distress. We got fecal samples from the goats and got them out of the barn into the pasture. We managed to get the other three llamas moved to other stalls so Tucker was by himself. Tucker had just unloaded a pile of fecal pellets next to the door so we got fecal samples from all the llamas without having to bother Tucker.
Choke is scary to watch. Tucker was reaching up and over his back with his head. He was grinding his teeth. Then he would fling his head down to the ground and lets loose a spray of slimy spit that goes everywhere when he shakes his head. Tucker was clearly in distress.
It took about two hours for the entire episode to resolve. In the end, Tucker was standing calmly in his stall looking like he couldn't quite figure out why I hadn't let him back out in the pasture yet. I kept all the other llamas in the barn so Tucker wouldn't be alone and they all looked ever so put upon to still be there. I left them all in the barn for another 4 hours just to be sure all was well. It was and they all went calmly out into the pasture about dinner time.
When cows choke it's usually because they have eaten something fairly hard that hasn't been chewed up enough to pass through their esophagus and down into their stomach. Usually it's an apple or something similar. For horses and llamas it is usually a clump of pelleted feed that has solidified into an obstruction. The thought is that eating too fast, pressure from the herd being all too close to each other when they eat or tall deep feed pans that allow the animal to get huge mouthfuls of feed at once are jointly responsible for choke.
Yes, all four llamas were in a single stall so they were packed in pretty tight when they were fed in there. They always do some jostling when they eat and it's worse in the stall. And they are fed a pelleted feed.
For the last two days I have wetted the llama pellets before I dumped them into the feeding bins. I think I'm going to have to figure something else out going forward. All four llamas were horrified at what I expected them to eat. Mush? Really? The moral outrage was significant. All four of them kept running back and forth between feed bins looking for whichever one had dry pellets.
I'm not very happy about feeding them gruel either. It sticks to the feed bins and I will have to start scrubbing them out every couple of days. More work for me. I will do it if I really need to but maybe I can come up with a different answer. Large rocks in their feeding bins will slow down how quickly they eat. And moving the feed bins farther apart should keep everyone calmer and feeling less pressured to gulp their meal. I'll get to work on that.