Many horses will require a light dose of sedation to allow for detailed, precise work with the dental rasp. Modern, motorized equipment is quiet, safe, and very accurate in competent hands.
Routine equine dental care includes floating (smoothing sharp enamel points), occlusal equilibration, correction of malocclusion, and balancing the dental arcades. These are all important for ensuring proper mastication, which helps your horse digest and process its food.
Poor Oral Hygiene
Horses are prone to developing problems in their mouths because of the way their teeth grow and wear. Unlike other animals with incisors, horses have hypsodont (cheek) teeth that continuously erupt throughout their lives and are worn down by grazing on fibrous feed material. This constant mastication is why routine dental care is so important.
Horses require routine floating to keep their mouths comfortable and prevent problems like sharp enamel points and malocclusions (waves, ramps, hooks, and slants). When a veterinarian performs an oral exam on your horse, they must first sedate the animal for safety and good visualization of the teeth. A full-mouth speculum is used to inspect the entire mouth and arcade of teeth for any abnormalities. These are then corrected using motorized instruments such as reciprocating floats, rotary burrs, and grinding discs. These newer tools allow for difficult reductions to be performed without the risk of trauma to soft tissue in the mouth.
In addition to looking at a horse’s teeth, a veterinarian will also feel their mouth for signs of pain or discomfort. This can help them locate areas that may need a more extensive procedure, such as leveling a wave, removing a hook, or removing a sharp point.
A horse that is experiencing pain or discomfort in their mouth can start to act differently and may be more irritable, especially around the bridle and saddle area. A change in a horse’s behavior or performance is often the result of poor comfort in their mouth, which is why regular oral exams are so important.
Foals should be examined shortly after birth to ensure they have no congenital dental anomalies and that their teeth are growing normally. Yearlings and those entering training for the first time need to have their teeth floated to remove any sharp points that could injure cheek or tongue tissue during mastication. Retained caps should also be removed as they are an additional hazard to these horses. This type of floatation is best done in early spring to have the results of the work completed before training starts.
Horses have a very complex mouth and teeth structure, designed to grind fibrous food for 18 hours per day. Unfortunately, they are housed in a way that does not allow them to use this instinctual behavior for their own survival, and most horses do not show signs of discomfort from oral disease until the issue becomes severe enough that the horse is no longer able to chew or swallow without pain or mechanical force. Equine veterinarians skilled in dentistry are often amazed at how much discomfort horses will tolerate until it is too late to prevent more serious consequences.
The most common issues seen on a dental exam are sharp enamel points from malocclusions, abnormal wear patterns, and asymmetrical crown/root ratio of the horse molars. These malocclusions can lead to poor mastication and weight loss in horses as well as bacterial invasion of the gum tissue, which can result in a variety of health problems.
Another frequent finding on a dental exam is periodontal pocket formation. This is when the gums separate from the teeth, resulting in mechanical and toxic bacterial damage to the tooth and supporting bone. If left untreated, this can lead to tooth loosening and possible extraction. Our equine dentists can perform routine periodontal pocket repair to protect your horses’ teeth and gums.
A final finding is the presence of hooks, ramps, and other abnormalities on the surface of the molars that interfere with proper mastication. These abnormalities are the result of a tooth not having proper wear with an opposing tooth during normal chewing. This results in a tooth not being able to be ground efficiently, and the teeth can become worn down to sharp enamel points on the outside of the upper molars or on the inside of the lower molars. These sharp points can cause sores in the cheeks and tongue and can restrict front-to-back jaw movement, which is needed for riding.
In addition to performing regular floats and other dental procedures, our equine dentists are trained in identifying and treating more advanced problems such as periodontal disease. Many 3-4 week “certified equine dental” courses are available to the general public; however, these do not replace the years of schooling that our veterinary doctors receive.
When a horse’s teeth are not in good working condition it can affect everything from the way he chews and digests his food to his comfort level with the bit and ability to maintain weight. A horse’s natural inclination to hide discomfort will often mean that the problem goes unnoticed until it is quite advanced. Watching your horse eating may help identify some signs of oral discomfort, including dropping partially chewed hay wads, chewing with his tongue out of his mouth, difficulty maintaining weight on a normal feed amount, or excess salivation and odor.
The incisors (front “cheek” teeth) and the premolars/molars (back cheek teeth) are a horse’s primary grinding teeth. They are worn down by a horse’s up-and-down and side-to-side chewing motion while he is eating. When a tooth is missing or broken, the opposing teeth have nothing to wear against, and the sharp points that are formed at the edges of those teeth will continue to grow and eventually cause painful lacerations in your horse’s gums.
Over time, horses develop a condition called equine odontoclastic tooth resorption and hypercementosis (EOTRH). This is a condition that affects incisors and, less frequently, canine teeth. This progressive condition causes pain during eating, resorptive lesions on the incisors and molars, halitosis, and changes in behavior.
In older horses, the back teeth can also have problems. A common problem is large hooks that form in the premolars or molars due to lack of wear. These hooks are not only painful for the horse but can snag on other teeth and break them. These problems are usually corrected by floating the teeth.
Floating involves removing the sharp enamel points and smoothing the grooves of the teeth so that the teeth fit together correctly. This procedure is performed under sedation to allow for a thorough examination, diagnosis, and treatment.
While horses have very tough gums and jaws, it is important to take the time to keep them in good dental health with regular exams and floats. This will help minimize the risks of serious problems in the future and maximize the performance and longevity of your horse’s teeth, mouth, and jaw.
As horses chew their food, they move the upper and lower jaws from side to side in a figure 8 motion. This movement can cause the sharp points that develop along the outside of the cheek teeth to rub against the cheeks and tongue, causing ulcers. It can also cause the diastemata (space) to form between the normal teeth rows where food gets stuck and rots resulting in periodontal disease. The chewing process can become so difficult that the horse eats slower and loses weight. It can even lead to colic as the partially chewed food is not digested properly.
Many of these problems can be prevented by making dental care a regular part of your horse’s routine wellness care program. Having your veterinarian float your horse’s teeth every year will remove the sharp edges that develop and prevent the tooth from wearing correctly. It will also help prevent the formation of hooks and ramps on the chewing surfaces, which can cause inflammation and infection of the gum tissue.
A good equine dentist should be able to float your horse’s teeth under sedation. They will use a metal speculum to hold the mouth open and then use motorized dental instruments with carbide float blades to reduce sharp points, waves, hooks, etc. This procedure is usually done on a standing patient, which means the horse will remain standing while your veterinarian floats their teeth and takes digital radiographs if necessary.
It is important that horses with a history of oral diseases or abnormalities have a complete examination under sedation and with the aid of radiographs before any dental work is performed. This will give the veterinarian a chance to evaluate the progress of treatment as well as spot any developing issues that may need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
Anytime a horse shows signs of discomfort in the mouth, such as acting out or poor performance, scheduling an exam is a good idea. Often these behavioral changes can be a sign of oral pain, and if left undiagnosed/untreated these problems can worsen, causing poor mastication, infections, colic, and even a loss of weight.