According to a study conducted by North Carolina State University, about 40% of horses have significant dental problems.
The answer to many of those problems is routine and thorough dental exams, which can prevent many issues from ever causing trouble.
On a basic level, dentistry in horses is important because the mouth is the first part of the horse that is taking in and processing food, says Dr Tyler Davis of Palm Beach Equine Clinic.
Horses must grind their food into a finely masticated bolus before swallowing. The combination of a horse’s upper jaw being larger than the lower and the fact that a horse chews by moving the jaw from side to side results in uneven wear of the teeth. This uneven wear may cause sharp edges, which hinder efficient chewing and may ulcerate or lacerate the cheeks and tongue thus causing incomplete mastication, sometimes leading to problems such as colic.
What is floating?
Floating is the term for rasping or filing a horse’s teeth to ensure an even, properly aligned bite plane. While floating is the physical process, the scope of equine dentistry is much broader and examines the horse’s overall health as influenced by the mouth.
“You can get a rasp and without even looking in the horse’s mouth float the points off, and you may be getting the vast majority of the work done,” said Dr Davis.
“But, a really good dental exam with a speculum, a very good light source, and a dental mirror allows you to see possible problems and prevent those problems from becoming painful and affecting your horse’s overall health.”
The most common signs of discomfort include:
- head-tilting and tossing
- difficulty chewing
- bit-chewing and tongue lolling
- tail-wringing and bucking
- drooling and bad breath
- (sometimes) weight loss and spillage of grain
The above symptoms require the attention of an equine dentist, but prevention is key to avoiding these signs altogether. The general goals of equine dentistry include improving the chewing of food by helping to maintain even tooth wear, relieving pain, treating or curing infection and disease, and promoting general health, productivity, and longevity.
The most common dental problems are:
- Malocclusions: Periodontal pockets caused by gum disease making a pocket around the tooth. Food gets caught in these pockets and causes even more decay. The disease progresses as the horse is unable to chew properly. It can lead to infection, abscesses in the mouth, and tooth loss.
- Fractured tooth from weakness or caused by a foreign object picked up by while eating. These most commonly cause lacerations to the gums and tongue.
- Tooth root infections that can cause a tooth to die.
- Equine Odontoclastic Tooth Resorption and Hypercementosis in geriatric horses: The buildup of a calcified area around the root of a horse’s incisor and canine teeth. When identified, radiographs can be performed to assess damage below the surface of the mouth.
For sport horses, dental care becomes even more important. Much of the connection between horse and rider comes by way of the horse’s mouth. If there are problems or discomfort within the mouth, it will be evident in the horse’s performance and disposition while being ridden. According to Dr. Davis, having a horse’s mouth perfect allows one to immediately rule out dental issues when trying to troubleshoot a performance problem.
It is recommended that horses have a checkup every 12 months at the minimum. In many sport horses, the fact that they are working at such a high level may require bi-yearly exams to prevent any problems that could sideline them from training or competition. Lastly, horses with known dental problems may require exams every three to four months.