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Volume 7, Number 1 Fall, 1999

Proper Dental Care Is Vital For Horses

Anne A. Wooldridge, DVM
Equine Medicine Resident

Thomas L. Seahorn, DVM, MS
Associate Professor of Equine Medicine
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine

Have you noticed your horse eating more slowly than usual? Dropping feed from his mouth? Weight loss, a colic episode, or drooling? Has your horse become headshy or difficult to turn when riding? All of these signs could indicate that your horse has a problem with its teeth. The practice of equine dentistry has changed considerably in the last few years. There are more options available for horses with dental abnormalities and better care for routine checkups. Did you know that a horse's teeth should be floated once or even twice a year? Did you know that dental problems could be a major cause of weight loss in young horses as well as in geriatric horses? Did you know that dental problems could lead to performance problems? Sometimes medical problems like weight loss and poor performance can be solved without expensive tests, just by looking in the horse's mouth. Your horse's overall health and well-being would be improved with routine dental care from a veterinary practitioner.

The Basics

'Floating' a horse's teeth involves filing down the sharp points that form on the enamel of the teeth as a result of chewing. A horse's teeth will continue to grow and wear down until they are about 15 years old which is very different from dogs, cats and people. The tooth on the opposing side of the mouth normally hinders the overgrowth of a tooth. If all or part of the opposite tooth is missing, the result is an overgrown tooth on the opposite side. The horse chews side-to-side with the cheek teeth causing the teeth to wear down in a characteristic pattern. The upper teeth have sharp 'points' on the cheek side, and the lower teeth have sharp 'points' on the tongue side. If a horse has a normally shaped jaw and no missing or extra teeth, then the only dental care required is floating the cheek teeth once a year. Jaw abnormalities and missing teeth make everything a bit more challenging. If the horse even has a slight overbite (i.e., 'parrotmouth'), then the cheek teeth will not oppose each other properly from front to back. The first half of the first upper tooth will grow down and the back half of the last lower tooth will grow up forming 'hooks.' The hook on the last lower tooth can be missed with routine teeth floating unless the veterinarian checks in the mouth with a flashlight or by palpating. Young or middle-aged horses that are missing teeth can also have problems because there is no opposing tooth to slow down growth. This can result in a supererupted tooth and problems with occlusion. Hooks, sharp points, and missing teeth can cause sores in the mouth and pain while eating and cause the clinical signs of dropping feed, eating slowly, losing weight, and potential performance problems.

The canine teeth and the incisors are often overlooked with a routine dental procedure. Canine teeth can become very sharp and are often coated in tartar, which irritates the gums. Sharp canine teeth can cause difficulties bridling and unbridling, they can become hooked on objects, and they can cause injuries during fights. The occlusion of the incisors can affect how the cheek teeth effectively grind food, so they should be evaluated.

Dental Care for the Young Horse

Young horses have some specific dental problems that differ from mature horses. Even yearlings and two-year-olds can have very sharp points on the teeth. Non-permanent teeth are soft and form sharp points easily. Horses from 2 to 4 years of age are also susceptible to forming 'caps' which are nonpermanent premolars that did not completely shed when the permanent tooth erupted underneath. Caps can cause difficulty with chewing, pain, and performance problems and need to be removed. The 'wolf tooth' is the first upper cheek tooth on both sides. It is a very small pointed tooth that does not erupt until 4-5 months of age. Most people remove this tooth because it can cause interference with the bit.

Dental Care for Older Horses

Older horses can pose a challenge for the veterinarian. The teeth stop growing when a horse reaches about 15 years of age. Sharp points and hooks still need to be floated off, but the horse can begin wearing the teeth down to the gums. Dental care is still extremely important in these horses, but fixing problems becomes more difficult. Diet management (easily chewable and digestible food) and keeping the sharp points off of the teeth so that the horse is comfortable are essential. Older horses can also often have teeth fall out during routine dental floats because they become loose. Despite this risk, it is still essential to maintain dental care on geriatric horses.

LSU's New Equipment

Private practitioners can take care of most dental problems. More complicated problems, however, require some specialized equipment. LSU recently purchased some new dental equipment for horses with special problems. One of the most important parts of a dental exam is looking at or feeling all of the teeth. Many horses require sedation in order to do a thorough exam and to complete many procedures. Proper and judicious use of sedation can make a dental procedure much easier on the animal and on the dentist. Used with proper restraint and sedation, a mouth speculum such as a wedge, spool or full mouth speculum can provide access to all parts of a horse's mouth. The full mouth speculum also allows the veterinarian to open the horse's mouth long enough and wide enough to do specialized work such as cutting supererupted molars, removing hooks from the last lower tooth, and working with the dremel tool. The full mouth speculum does require sedation to be used safely, but the results are usually worth the sedation. There are many different shapes of floats that can allow the veterinarian to reach certain teeth more effectively and work more quickly because they are of better quality. The 'equi-chip' is a device that can efficiently cut off small sharp hooks that cause discomfort while eating. Finally the dremel tool is excellent for working on hooks, canines, and incisors.

Our Miniature Horse Patients

Another group of horses that will benefit greatly from improved dental care is miniature horses. Miniature horses seem to be prone to dental and secondary sinus problems. Some of these troubles could be solved with better dental care, but most floats are too large to effectively float all of the teeth. We have also recently acquired a set of floats specifically designed for miniature horses, so we hope to improve our standard of care for miniature horse's teeth.

In Conclusion

Improving your horse's dental care could improve its condition, its attitude, and possibly its performance. Contact your veterinarian or LSU for further information.

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