Why is equine dentistry so important?

Care of our horses’ teeth is just as important as care of our own, writes Dannii Cunnane, giving us the lowdown on the essential guide to equine dentistry.

In just the same manner as humans, horses use their teeth to grind and chew their food – if they cannot do this successfully, they aren’t obtaining the nutrients they need which in turn can lead to health issues. To ensure their choppers are in good working order, horses need to see a dentist on a regular basis.

Most foals are born with their first set of incisors (the centre teeth). Their middle incisors will come in between 4-6 weeks of age, and the outside set of incisors will come in between when they are between 6-9 months old. Up to 24 milk teeth are lost between the ages of two-and-a-half and four-and-a-half years. These are also called ‘caps’ or ‘temporary incisors’. They often fall out naturally but occasionally can give a horse mouth problems and may require extraction.

The remarkable thing about horses’ teeth is that they continue to erupt or grow throughout most of their life, especially in their early years. They are also constantly being worn down due to the grinding action that horses use to chew their feed.

The shape this grinding creates can cause problems. The maxilla (upper jaw) is wider than the mandible (lower jaw) so the molars don’t sit directly over each other. The outside edges of the upper molars and the inside edges of the lower molars don’t get ground down at the same rate as the rest of the teeth and become very sharp. These sharp edges need to be correctly addressed to prevent lacerations to the cheeks and tongue, which can often turn into painful ulcers. This is especially the case with the first molars which need special attention to be shaped correctly.

Donkey receiving dental treatment.

So what does a dentist do?

The last two decades have seen a dramatic evolution in equine dentistry. The use of hand tools to rasp or file horse’s teeth has traditionally been the technique with which horse owners are most familiar but more recently equine dentists have tended towards becoming Whole of Mouth practitioners.

WOM equine dentistry is as the name implies. What sets this technique apart from a traditional dental float (rasp or file) is that it involves a thorough assessment of a horse’s dental condition using tools not unlike those of human dentists. WOM dentists use power drills and therefore require horses to be sedated.

Of course, all equine dentists will study, diagnose and offer prevention and treatment of diseases, disorders and conditions of the horse’s oral cavity.

The equine dentist places a gag bridle on your horse (referred to as a gag) that allows the front teeth to slip into metal disks and have their mouths held open by a special crank. Once the gag is on the dentist can use the crank to gently open the horse’s mouth, look inside and feel the horse’s teeth, tongue, gums and jaw with their hands to see if there are any abnormalities and sharpness within the area.

Once the dentist has conducted their examination, they may need to file the horse’s teeth. This is done with a rasp which can be moved along the teeth manually or with a powered device. While there are pros and cons to both methods, it’s all about the individual horse and their needs. The Equine Dental Association of Australia (EDAA) states that the traditional hand file is a more precise tool as the dentist is able to tell exactly how much tooth the file is removing and that the powered tool is less accurate in this area. Finally it comes down to what your dentist wishes to use on your horse and your opinion on the horses welfare.

How often should my horse’s pearly whites be treated?

An equine dentist will be able to give you a more accurate timeline of when each horse needs to be seen. Like humans, it differs for each individual such as age, dental conditions and what they are eating.

As a general rule, the following can be used as a timing guide:

Young Horses

A young horse’s teeth should ideally be first done during the mouthing process. If young horses have problems in the mouth that are causing pain, especially with a bit, it may develop bad habits that are difficult to break.

Young horse’s teeth grow faster than an adult horse’s teeth, and they also lose their milk teeth which can need attention. Because of this, it is recommended that young horses get more regular dental maintenance.

Mature Horses

Mature horses without unusual dental conditions should still have regular dental maintenance  to ensure a long and healthy life. Even if you’re not riding the horse, dental check-ups are still an important part of
general health maintenance. In horses of twenty and upwards, the tooth growth slows and they can start losing their molars. While there isn’t much the equine dentist can do about this, they may still require dentistry check-ups every two years to ensure a happy mouth and to spot any problems. Caring for your horse’s teeth throughout its life will maximise the oral condition of its teeth and may decrease problems in later years.

Close up of brown horse teeth.

Signs of Trouble

Some of the most common signs that horses are experiencing dental discomfort are in their chewing habits which may include:

  • dribbling or dropping feed out of its mouth while eating
  • ‘quidding’ the food which is rolling the feed into balls rather than chewing and then dropping it on the ground
  • washing feed in their water bucket while trying to eat it
  • holding their head to the side when eating
  • refusing to eat hard grain or eating it too quickly (known as bolting food) leading to a loss of condition
  • horses may swallow before chewing is complete and this may lead to colic.

Physical signs of mouth issues may include:

  • the presence of excess saliva
  • halitosis (bad mouth odour)
  • swelling of the face or jaw
  • bleeding from the mouth
  • loss of physical condition
  • the presence of whole grains or large pieces of food in manure due to unsatisfactory chewing.

Behavioural signs that a horse has dental pain may include:

  • tossing or nodding their head when being ridden
  • pulling to one side when ridden
  • increased resistance to the bridle
  • becoming nervous
  • rearing and being generally unsettled or unwilling to perform correctly or consistently.

Book It In! If you think that your horse may need a dental check, contact your local veterinarian or equine dentist to have them assess the health of your horse’s mouth. Depending on your location and how many dentists actually service your region, there could be a wait list so it would be advisable to book in as soon as possible. Like most services, word of mouth is a good way of finding out the gems in your area.

Posted on Leave a comment