Dental Health for Horses
Our equine friends can suffer from dental disorders, just like people can, that affect their ability to eat and perform.
Annually scheduled equine dental visits from the vets at Badger Veterinary Hospital & Equine Services include a thorough oral health examination and dental floating (if necessary). This helps to ensure optimal dental health for your horse.
All of our equine vets are trained in the use of motorized and hand-powered dental instruments. The use of sedation and full-mouth speculums to perform oral exams allows our veterinarians to accurately assess and treat the dental needs of your horse with comfort and safety in mind.
Equine Dental Care & Exams
Adult horses should be seen by a veterinary dentist at least once each year. Horses that are growing, are prone the dental health issues, or are over the age of 20 may need to be seen more often than once each year.
At Badger Veterinary Hospital & Equine Services, our equine vets can assess, diagnose, and treat dental health problems in horses.
If you notice any of the following symptoms in your horse, it's time for a dental appointment.
- Weight loss
- Nasal discharge
- Food packing within cheeks
- Poorly digested food in manure
- Dropping feed from the mouth while chewing
- Awkward chewing motions while eating
- Trouble placing a bit in the horses’ mouth
- Difficulty riding when the horse has a bit in
Generally speaking, an equine dental appointment will begin with the veterinarian gathering medical history for your horse. They will ask you or your stable manager a series of questions to get a sense of what they can expect to find in a horse's mouth.
Typically, the veterinarian will ask if certain signs of dental problems have been present in the horse’s behavior. Your horse will then be sedated because it allows for a more thorough examination of the mouth.
The first thing that the veterinarian does, once they've opened your horse's mouth with a full-mouth speculum, will be to perform a comprehensive exam of the mouth, including the gums, mucosa, teeth, and tongue.
Once your vet has had a chance to examine your horse's mouth, they will discuss treatment options for any extensive issues.
Quite often a horse's teeth may become worn in a way that leads to sharp edges. So, our vets will file them down in a procedure called 'floating.'
This uses power or hand tools to grind the teeth in certain spots to either adjust the alignment of the mouth or to smooth out sharp or protruding points in the teeth.
You can help your horse by providing at least half of their diet as good quality hay. If you have an older horse, they may require special attention with their diet, especially if they are missing teeth and struggle to chew hay. Fiber replacements offer a good solution in such cases but speak to your vet about any concerns you may have.
FAQs About Equine Dental Care
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions from our clients about horse dental care.
- Why do horses need yearly dental exams?
Making horse dental care a priority can save not only your horse's life, but can save time and money and give you and your horse the quality of life and companionship you both deserve.
Horses can be prone to developing dental health issues because:
- 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.
Throughout the horse's life, teeth will naturally wear down both normally and abnormally. The result can be either pain or premature wear of the teeth. The discomfort that can result from even regular wear patterns makes annual dental exams important for the horse.
In addition, the development of wolf teeth can cause a young horse great discomfort resulting in fighting the bit and making training more difficult. Any pressure on the horse's cheeks is capable of rubbing on these teeth which tend to be pointed.
- How often does my horse need a routine dental exam?
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 equine dental care helps many horses to maintain functional dentition into their third and fourth decades of life.
Most dental procedures, including basic floating, are most appropriately performed by a veterinarian. Catch dental problems early! Waiting too long increases the difficulty of correction so we recommend that your horse receives annual dental examinations.
- How can I tell if my horse has oral health issues?
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. We encourage you to watch for these signs of equine dental disease:
- 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, fighting the bit, or resisting bridling
- Poor performance, such as tugging 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
Behavior can be a huge indication of oral health problems. If your horse is experiencing dental problems they can have bad breath, drop food, or have less of an appetite. They can also pack food in their cheeks, start to lose weight, or fight the bit during training.
Read more about symptoms to the left under Equine Dental Care & Exams.
- What long-term problems can poor oral health potentially cause in my pet?
Serious dental conditions can develop, such as infections of the teeth and gums, extremely long hooks or overgrowths on the cheek teeth, and lost or fractured teeth. These conditions may require advanced dental care and/or extraction by a qualified veterinarian.
Your equine veterinarian can recommend the best treatment or refer your horse to a dental specialist if needed.
- How can I keep an eye on my horse's dental health?
Regularly, handle your horse's head and mouth to make sure they are comfortable having their mouth examined. If you own a foal, exam the foal's teeth as soon as possible, checking for baby teeth called caps that are pushed out by the growing permanent teeth by the time the horse is about two years old.
If caps are creating pain and soreness, you may have your veterinarian remove the caps.
Note any changes in eating habits, loss of weight, bad breath, dropping half-eaten food, holding the head at a strange angle, bolting, or head tossing when being bridled or ridden. Any of these conditions may be caused by dental problems.
- What are some common dental health problems in horses?
Some commonly seen dental issues for horses include:
- Retained caps, retained deciduous teeth, and discomfort caused by bit contact with wolf teeth or long, sharp canine teeth
- Hooks that form on upper and lower molars due to abnormal wear. If pronounced this can cause painful ulcers and erosion of the soft tissues of the cheek or tongue
- Overgrowth secondary to a misaligned jaw (parrot mouth) or as a result of a missing tooth
- Fractured, displaced, loose, or missing cheek teeth
- Diastema (gaps between the teeth where food collects) that causes gum disease
- Caries: tooth decay
- Tooth root abscess
- Blind (unerupted) or abnormally large or displaced wolf teeth
- Abnormalities of the incisors
- What is meant by dental floating?
Floating, or occlusal equilibrium, is routine dental maintenance of horses’ teeth. Enamel points are smoothed, malocclusions corrected, dental arcades balanced, and other equine dental problems corrected.
On pasture, horses graze almost continuously, picking up dirt and grit in the process. This, along with silicate in the 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.
A 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.