Equine Dental Care
Routine dental care is essential to your horse’s health and necessary for numerous reasons:
- Domestication and confinement have modified horses’ diets and eating patterns.
- We demand more from performance horses at younger ages than ever before.
- Breeding animals are often selected with no regard for dental considerations.
Dental care is rewarding. Your horse will be more comfortable, utilize feed efficiently, perform better, and even live longer.
The Horse’s Mouth
Horses evolved with teeth adapted for grazing. Their incisors have a flat surface curved side to side for shearing forage. The molars have wide, flat, roughened surfaces to grind feed before swallowing.
A horse has two sets of teeth in their lifetime. Deciduous teeth are temporary baby teeth. The first deciduous incisor erupts near birth and the last erupts at about 8 months of age. Adult teeth begin to replace deciduous teeth at age 2 ½; by age 5, horses have their permanent teeth. Adult male horses have 40 adult teeth, a mare has 36-40 adult teeth. Mares are less likely to have canine teeth.
Common Dental Problems in Horses
The most common dental problems horses suffer from include:
- Sharp enamel points forming on the molars, causing lacerations of cheeks and tongue
- Retained caps, deciduous teeth that are not shed, and discomfort caused by bit contact with wolf teeth or long, sharp canine teeth
- Hooks that form on upper and lower molars
- Lost, broken, excessively worn, or abnormally long teeth
Recognizing Dental Problems in Your Horse
Horses with dental problems may show obvious signs such as pain or irritation, or they may show no noticeable signs at all -- some horses simply adapt to the discomfort. Periodic dental examinations are essential. Indicators of dental problems in horses include:
- Loss of feed from the mouth while eating, difficulty chewing, or excessive salivation
- Loss of body condition or the presence of large, undigested feed particles in manure
- Head tilting or head tossing, bit chewing, tongue lolling, fighting the bit, or resisting bridling
- Poor performance, such as lugging on the bridle, failing to turn or stop, or even bucking
- Foul odor from the mouth or nostrils, traces of blood from the mouth, nasal discharge, or swelling of the face or jaw
Preventative Dental Care for Your Horse
Oral exams are an essential part of an annual physical examination by a veterinarian. Dental exams provide the opportunity to perform routine preventative dental maintenance resulting in a healthier, more comfortable horse.
Traditionally, routine dental maintenance of a horse’s teeth is referred to as “floating”. Occlusal equilibrium is the term now used to describe smoothing enamel points, correcting malocclusion, balancing the dental arcades, and correcting other dental problems.
On pasture, horses graze almost continuously, picking up dirt and grit in the process. This, along with silicate in grass, wears down the teeth.
Most stabled horses do not give their teeth the same workout. Feedings are more apt to be scheduled, not continuous, and include processed grains and hays. Softer feeds require less chewing, allowing the teeth to become excessively long and wear unevenly.
Adult teeth erupt throughout a horse’s life and are worn down by chewing. Points form on the cheek side of the upper molars and the tongue side of the lower molars. These points should be smoothed to prevent damage and ulceration of the cheeks and tongue.
Routine examination is critical in horses missing teeth or whose teeth wear improperly because of misalignment. Misaligned molars cause hooks to form; long or sharp hooks damage soft tissue.
Wolf teeth are small teeth located in front of the second premolar and occasionally appear in the lower jaw. A horse may have one to four or sometimes no wolf teeth. Not all wolf teeth are troublesome; we typically remove them to prevent pain or bit interference.
Age Factors in Horse Dental Health
A horse’s age affects the degree and frequency of dental care required. Consider these points:
- Examine foals shortly after birth and periodically during the first year to diagnose congenital dental problems.
- Yearlings have been found to have enamel points sharp enough to damage soft tissue; floating can increase comfort.
- Horses going into training, especially 2- and 3-year-olds, benefit from a comprehensive dental check up. Teeth should be floated to remove sharp points and checked for retained caps. Caps may be removed if they are retained. This should be done before training to prevent training problems related to dental issues.
- Horses aged 2-5 years may require more frequent dental exams than older horses. Deciduous teeth are softer than permanent teeth and develop sharp enamel points quickly. An extraordinary amount of dental maturation occurs during this period of adolescent development; 24 deciduous teeth will be shed and replaced by 36 to 40 adult teeth.
- Mature horses should have a thorough dental examination annually to maintain correct alignment and to diagnose dental problems early.
- Senior horses (17 years old or older) are at increased risk for developing periodontal disease. This painful disease must be diagnosed for successful treatment. Maintaining a correct bite plane during a horse’s teen years ensures functional grinding surfaces beyond 20 years of age. Beyond age 20, tooth surfaces may be worn excessively and/or unevenly and dental alignment correction may not be possible.
- Horses over 20 years of age should receive a dental evaluation and nutritional counseling annually to maintain their condition and quality of life. Routine dental care helps many horses to maintain functional dentition into their third and fourth decades of life.
Most dental procedures, including basic floating, irreversibly change the teeth and are most appropriately performed by a veterinarian. Catch dental problems early! Waiting too long increases the difficulty of correction or makes correction impossible.