Equine Dental Care
Written by Dr. Kitzel Farrah
As the snow melts away from winter I often see clients bring in their thin horses from winter pasture. The winter has taken it toll on these animals due to increase caloric demands to stay warm and often declining food sources with a lack of rich grass. But if your horse is not putting that weight back on quickly, the first thing I look at is the horse's teeth.
Horses have teeth very different than our own. Foals are born with deciduous teeth (baby teeth). These teeth will be replaced by adult teeth starting their second year through their sixth year of life. The adult tooth of the horse is very long and will continue to erupt throughout the life of the horse. As the horse chews they natually grind down their teeth wherever the upper and lower teeth have contact. The eruption rate of the tooth corresponds with tooth wear. Most horses have areas on the tooth that are not worn down and become very sharp or tall, we often refer to these areas as hooks and points. The teeth are sometimes worn down unevenly and this can change the whole surface of the teeth creating patterns we call wave mouth and shear mouth.
To correct these abnormalities that are inevitable in all horses, we "float" the teeth and restore a naturally flat table on the top of the tooth by grinding down the sharp points, hooks and uneven wear patterns with files and dermal equipment. Floating is not only important for the horses ability to apprehend and masticate (grind) food, but it plays a very important role in bit comfort.
It is for this reason that young horses should have their teeth checked before being started in a training program. It often surprises people that horses between the ages 2 and 6 also need to have their baby teeth floated. Just like the adult tooth, these teeth can wear unevenly creating sharp uncomfortable points that dig into the cheek and gums when bit pressure is applied. During those critical years of teaching a horse to "give" to the bit, we do not need to make it more complicated because of dental problems. I will also check in a young horses mouth for the presents of "wolf teeth". Not all horses have "wolf teeth" and some may have only 1 or have as moany as 4 wolf teeth. This is a small tooth that is positioned some where in front of the big cheek teeth and quite often creates problems when a bit is in the mouth. For that reason we generally just extract the tooth. This procedure is not difficult and can be done in a matter of minutes under sedation. The horses' mouth will generally heal from the proceddure in a matter of days.
As the horse ages and especially becomes a geriatric it is critical to take care of the teeth to prevent severe dental disorders that can affect the health and potential life span of the animal. Older horses are most inclined to have other dental abnormalities such as loose teeth, form abscesses, get gingival infections, tumors and a large number of other pethologic problems. It is not unusual to have dental problems cause the demise of our older horses.
Dental health requires yearly maintenance in the majority of horses. Your horse should have their teeth checked and possibly floated by a qualified veterinarian every year. It is difficult to assess the back cheek teeth adequately without sedation and a proper mouth speculum. So do not be surprised if your veterinarian recommends this befroe even commiting to the need of corrective work in the mouth.
As spring rools around, I recommend you call your veterinarian to schedule a full annual exam including a physical exam, vaccinations, deworming and a dental exam.