The Evolution of Equine Dental Care

Smiling horse

We are all well aware that A LOT has changed in the last 30 years. Along with the rest of the world, veterinary medicine is changing, too. Arguably, one of the biggest differences between a veterinary education 25 or 30 years ago and now is the amount of time spent on equine dentistry and oral health.

If you ask more seasoned veterinarians how much time was spent on equine dentistry, they will respond with, "Oh, we talked about it in one lecture or so." If you ask a recent graduate, they will reply, "I spent two weeks in an equine dentistry elective where we were able to do oral exams and float approximately 150 horses and watch and become familiar with advanced procedures."  

The recent commitment by veterinarians to dentistry and oral health shows in the longevity of our equine companions. It’s not uncommon to see horses live well into their 30s, and I believe a big contributor to this is appropriate dental care.

A favorite saying among horse owners and farriers is, "No foot, no horse." Let me introduce an equally important saying:

"No teeth, no horse ... unless you’re willing to feed soaked senior feed mashes 3-4 times a day forever."   

What makes a horse’s mouth unique?

To understand why equine dentistry has changed so much in the past three decades, you need to understand some concepts about a horse’s mouth.

Horses' teeth are referred to as "hypsodont" teeth, or teeth that erupt throughout their lifetime. The part of the tooth that you see when looking into a horse’s mouth is referred to as the "clinical crown." The part of the tooth that has yet to erupt under the gum line is referred to as the "reserve crown." When we take an X-ray a horse’s head, a younger horse will have a large amount of tooth within the skull (reserve crown) and an older horse will have much less.

As they grind their hay and other feeds, the tooth gets worn down and reserve crown will erupt as needed. If there is disease of the teeth or oral soft tissues, or if chewing is altered, teeth can wear unevenly to form sharp points, waves, hooks, or other abnormalities and cause pain for the horse. It's these abnormalities that we can correct through "floating" or grinding down the teeth in a specific way to help promote appropriate chewing. Floating, however, must be done judiciously in a way that promotes the life and vitality of the horse’s teeth. Because once the reserve crown is gone, that’s it, there is no more tooth.

What has changed that has allowed veterinarians to be committed to equine oral health?

Power Floating a horse's teeth
  1. Reliable Sedation: The sedative veterinarians use today lasts longer with safe and effective results than sedatives of the past. An adequately sedated patient allows for a thorough and accurate evaluation of the status of an animal’s mouth (teeth and surrounding soft tissues) and allows a more precise dental float.
  2. Power Floats: Previously, all equine dental floats were performed by using hand floats (various shaped hand files) that could be used to grind down abnormalities or sharp points within a horse’s mouth. Power floats (or floats run by a power drill) contain a rotating grinding surface which allows for more precise floating and correction of malocclusions with less energy expelled by the practitioner. In an educated hand, the power float is much safer and more effective than hand floats. However, because they are powerful, power floats do have the potential to cause damage to the teeth through the heat generated or over-zealous floating. This is why these tools should only be used by a trained veterinarian who understands how to use them and who understands their effect on the health of a horse’s teeth.
  3. Availability of Advanced Diagnostics: Since each tooth in a horse’s mouth can have such a profound impact on all the other teeth erupting in the mouth, the goal of equine veterinarians providing dental care is to maintain the vitality of a horse’s tooth for as long as possible. When we see disease in or around a horse’s tooth, it can be hard to make a call based upon a visual examination of the clinical crown alone as to whether extracting that tooth is in the best interest of the horse or not. This is where dental radiographs become extremely valuable. They allow us to determine if disease affects the reserve crown, pulp horn (root of the tooth), and/or the overlying sinuses. Luckily, with digital radiographs, taking radiographs of a horse’s mouth on the farm can be done easily and can help veterinary practitioners make sound decisions.

For more information on the process of a dental exam and float and Badger Equine's recommendations, please see my previous blog post, Equine Dentistry: Not Just a Float.

For more information on the diseases that can affect a horse’s mouth, see this article from the American Association of Equine Practitioners: Understanding Your Horse's Teeth.

February is National Pet Dental Health Month. Schedule your horse's dental exam and float and receive 15% off the procedure. Contact Badger Equine Veterinary Services today!