Dental Care for the Horse
Regular examination and preventative treatment is the best way to look after your horses teeth, and avoid many dental-related problems, such as bit discomfort.
Why do horses need routine dental treatment?
- the lifestyle and diet of our domestic horses is very different from wild horses and Zebras
- feeding concentrate based ‘meals’ means that less time is spent eating fibrous vegetation, which requires vigorous chewing that results in even wear of the dental enamel
- domestic horses liver much longer and are therefore more likely to develop problems
- domestic horses often need to wear a bit comfortably – some dental abnormalities will result in ‘bitting problems’ which would not be picked up in the wild horse
What are the symptoms of dental problems?
Symptoms when eating – such as ‘Quidding’ (the dropping of partly chewed food), being slow to eat forage/hay, and pouching of food in the horse’s cheek
Symptoms when working – bitting problems – such as abnormal head carriage, resistance to the bit and headshaking during work can all be signs of dental pain
Symptoms of tooth root infection – nasal discharge (with sinusitis) and/or facial swelling
Other Symptoms - Weight loss, choke and certain types of colic
When should horses get their teeth checked?
All horses should have their teeth checked at least once a year to help avoid many of the common dental problems, and keep on top of any dental overgrowths. This annual check should form part of the veterinary health check that goes in line with all horses routine annual flu and/or tetanus vaccinations.
Certain horses will benefit from more regular check-ups (especially older horses, horses with developmental problems, and horses with “Cushing’s syndrome”).
A thorough examination of the mouth can only be achieved by placing a speculum (a ‘gag’ - pictured left) in the horse’s mouth. This allows safe inspection of all teeth, by keeping the jaws open (but it does not force the horse’s mouth open).
Adequate restraint is also required; for fractious horses sedation may be necessary, though most horses, over time, can be trained to allow examination without sedation.
Generally, it is rare to have problems before 5 years of age. However, young horses can develop dental problems, and as ever prevention is better than cure, and so regular inspection should be considered from an early age. Moreover, if development problems can be avoided early in life, it is likely that many of the acquired problems that horses see later in life can also be avoided.
What are the common problems?
Horse’s teeth are inherently different to ours, as they are designed for a life of chewing fibrous forage. The visible part of the tooth (‘the crown’) is actually only a fraction of the entire tooth (as pictured below, left).
They have an enormous reserve crown, which continually erupts from the gum line throughout the horse’s life, providing plenty of hard dental enamel for the horse to break down forage with a side-to-side grinding action.
However, this process tends to leave sharp dental overgrowths(enamel points – pictured, right) which can traumatise the opposing cheek, leading to gum ulceration and pain. Enamel points may develop in all horses to some degree, but are more likely in horses with misaligned teeth, or with horses fed a diet that is low in forage.
These sharp enamel points are managed by regular rasping (or ‘floating’), which is generally done using hand tools (pictured left). Many horses will accept such routine dental treatments, but some will require sedation.
Motorised dental equipment (power tools – picturesd left), can be useful for horses with severe overgrowths or requiring extensive work. However, power tools should only ever be used in well restrained, sedated horses, to avoid causing soft tissue damage, or pulp exposure.
OTHER COMMON ABNORMALITIES:
- Retained caps (‘baby teeth’) can cause oral discomfort and eruption problems.
- Malocclusion of the upper and lower jaws (‘overshot jaw’) can result in large sharp hooks.
- Diastema(ta) (spaces between the individual cheek teeth) develop in many older horses and can lead to food trapping, gum disease and pain.
- Displaced cheek teeth may cause gum laceration and pain. These may be due to overcrowding in young horses, or just develop with age in older horses.
- Fractures of the upper cheek teeth occur commonly, usually in the absence of known trauma, and can result in pain, gum laceration and increase the risk of tooth root infections.
For more information, please speak to one of the vets.
Tom Southall MRCVS