Equine Dentistry: Not Just a Float

The equine oral exam.

The equine oral exam.

A common misconception among horse owners is equine dentistry refers to just the floating of your horse’s teeth. Yes, floating is important to maintain your horse’s oral health. However, it’s only a part of the picture when considering the oral health of the horse. To help better understand this, I will explain the oral examination and dental float from start to finish.

Step 1: Obtaining a History

Before beginning any exam, we will have a discussion on whether or not you have been noticing any signs that your horse has a dental issue. Signs of dental disease can vary tremendously. Symptoms of dental disease include weight loss, dropping feed, nasal discharge, undigested material in manure, spitting out balls of hay (quidding), dunking hay in water, or poor performance. 

Step 2: Oral Examination

Next, we will perform a brief oral exam. This exam allows us a quick peek into the oral health of the horse and can help us make a decision whether a full oral examination and dental float should be pursued. The brief exam is done by examining the outer aspects of the horse’s head/nasal passages externally on the skull and a brief look inside the horses’ mouth without sedation and is dependent on your horse’s behavior.

What this exam can tell you is whether or not your horse has sharp points on his/her cheek teeth and the health of the incisors. Because this exam is performed quickly without sedation, it does not give us any information about the health of the individual cheek teeth or much information about the furthest back molars. At Badger Veterinary Hospital, we will perform brief oral exams with both spring and fall wellness visits as a part of the physical examination.

Mirror and pick used for our dental exams. Note sharpie for size comparison. Big mirrors for big horse heads!

Mirror and pick used for our dental exams. Note sharpie for size comparison. Big mirrors for big horse heads!

The complete oral examination is much like the examination performed by your dentist in a dentist’s office. This exam is performed with the horse standing under sedation with a dental speculum in the mouth which allows us to be able to completely examine each tooth, gums, and other oral soft tissue structures. Essential components of the complete oral examination include very bright lighting (it’s a dark cave in there!), feeling each tooth for mobility or sharp points, and a mirror examination of the teeth to monitor for signs of decay, periodontal disease (disease around the tooth and root), or endodontic disease (disease within the tooth). During this examination, sharp points and/or changes in a horse’s dental occlusion (how the teeth line up) can be observed and a plan for floating can be made.

Step 3: Further Diagnostics

Depending on what is found during the complete oral examination, we may recommend that dental radiographs be taken. With digital radiography, it is easy for us to take radiographs of a horse’s teeth on the farm. The radiographs can tell us the health of specific teeth below the gum surface that we are not able to see with our eye. They can tell us whether certain teeth are no longer viable and whether extraction or another treatment may be the best choice for your horse. While avoiding extraction is always preferable, if a tooth becomes fractured or diseased, leaving these teeth in the mouth can lead to infection of the local structures in the mouth, sinusitis, pain, inappetence, and weight loss for the horse.  

Step 4: Dental Float

Following the oral examination, a dental float is performed to help remove sharp points from cheek teeth that could be causing ulcerations, callusing, and abrasions to the cheek and tongue in a horse’s mouth. Removing sharp points is not the sole purpose of a dental float. More important than removing the sharp points is maintaining a horse’s natural angulation and alignment of upper and lower molars to its regular 15-degree configuration.

Left: Performing a dental float.
Right: Skull view inside a horse's mouth. Note the 15-degree angle of the upper and lower cheek teeth. This angulation of the mouth is normal and important to maintain for the health of the individual teeth within the mouth.

A mouth that is well aligned and maintained at a natural angle encounters less unnatural forces during repeated chewing and therefore is at a reduced risk for disease and fracture of individual teeth. On the flip side of this, if a horse’s mouth is floated at an incorrect angle, the abnormal forces in the mouth can lead to increased risk for fracture, malocclusion, or dental disease. What this means is that a badly performed float has the potential to cause more harm than good on the overall health of your horse’s mouth.

Step 5: Dental Treatments

Specific dental treatments might be recommended based on what is found during the exam and radiographs. Treatments may include picking and flushing out of feed material, floating particular teeth in a certain particular manner, periodontal or other medical treatments, or even extraction of teeth.

It is our recommendation that at least a brief oral examination be performed by a veterinarian 1-2 times a year and a complete oral examination be performed annually depending on the needs of your particular horse. In the horse world, you cannot underestimate the power of a well-maintained equine mouth. We have many clients that are able to keep their horse’s going well into their late 20s and 30s and this is in part due to well-maintained mouths. There’s nothing more special than keeping a horse for over 30 years. That’s a longer relationship than we have with most people! 

In February, Badger Veterinary Hospital celebrates Dental Month. Call to schedule your horse’s complete oral examination and dental float for 15% off during the month of February.