Routine Equine dental care is as equally important to your horse’s health care program as vaccinations and deworming. Proper Equine dentistry helps prevent pain, anorexia (loss of appetite), and inadequate mastication (chewing). These problems can ultimately lead to poor nutritional utilization, impaction colic, weight loss, behavior problems and even poor performance. Horses have unique teeth that erupt continuously throughout their lifetime. This allows them to utilize forages but can be problematic if there are malocclusions in the mouth and uneven wearing of the teeth.
A thorough examination is the most important component in diagnosing dental abnormalities and establishing the appropriate treatment protocol. This generally requires sedation and use of a full mouth speculum to obtain good visualization and palpation of the entire mouth and arcade of teeth, to check for sharp points, missing or loose teeth. A good set of stocks and proper restraint of the patient is also critical for the safety of handlers and practitioner. There have been significant advancements in equine dentistry including motorized instruments, primarily reciprocating floats, rotary burrs and grinding discs. These instruments allow for difficult reductions to be performed without risk of trauma to soft tissue or teeth. Motorized equipment in the right hands can be a very effective tool for routine floating and management of dental irregularities. In the wrong hands however, it can cause damage to the horse either through over-heating, over reduction of the teeth or laceration of the soft tissues of the mouth.
Malocclusions (misalignment of teeth) of the premolars and molars are common findings in most horses. This is probably a result of how most domestic horses are fed as compared to how they evolved to eat. Horses evolved grazing large volumes of long stemmed, course feed for 16 plus hours each day. Horse’s teeth are hypsodont which has long continually erupting reserve crown, which in the horse erupts at a rate of 2-3mm per year. Most of our domestic horses do not live on pasture; instead, they receive 20 plus pounds of processed feed per day. These horses spend only an hour or two consuming each meal and do not utilize dentition in the same manner as feral horses. Not only is less time spent chewing but it has also been shown that the type of feed given to the horse can alter its chewing pattern. The cheek teeth of the jaw can develop very sharp points that can rub and catch against the cheeks and tongue causing ulcers.
In addition to the effects of an altered diet on the domesticated horse, horses are often asked to carry a bit, ride in collection and to be responsive to cues. It is not hard to understand why oral comfort can prove to be very important in riding. Horses these days are also living much longer than they would have done in the wild. It is not uncommon for horses to ‘outlive’ some of their teeth and routine dentistry in older horses and ponies focuses on preserving good function for as long as possible. Routine dentistry involves removing the harmful sharp points and edges from the cheek teeth. This process is called rasping or floating.
How often should routine dentistry be done? Beginning proper annual dental care in the juvenile foal is important to achieve a functional and comfortable mouth that will be maintained for the life of the horse. It is also important to identify any abnormalities at the first dental exam around 18 months to 2 years of age. It is recommended that horses begin receiving dental exams as weanlings and should have a through exam before placing a bit in their mouth. Typically, most dramatic cheek teeth malocclusions begin in the first five years of life and involve asynchronous (uneven) eruption of opposing teeth and delayed shedding of deciduous (baby teeth) premolars. Horses will shed 12 cheek teeth caps and 12 incisor caps and erupt 36 more permanent teeth before the age of 5. Closely monitoring horses in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th years, when the deciduous premolars are shedding and permanents are coming into occlusion, will help to prevent problems and frequent examinations may be needed. When horses gain a mature mouth often annual visits are sufficient to keep the mouth comfortable and balanced however some horses need more frequent care, particularly if there are any abnormalities of growth such as overlong or displaced teeth. When horses reach old age, it is very important not to be too aggressive when rasping in order to preserve what grinding surface area remains in the mouth. For this reason, management of old horses often simply involves checking for loose or obviously diseased teeth.
Elko Veterinary Clinic loves to see smiles in all species. We understand the importance of dentistry and what a difference it makes for our horses. We are proud to have over 60 years combine experience in equine dentistry and to have a licensed veterinary technician that is specialized in equine dentistry. If you would like us to do a dental exam on your horse this fall give us a call to schedule.
Dr. Alan Cuthbertson