Although their teeth are not as easy to see, preventative dental care is imperative for horses just like in people. The following Q & A covers what you need to know to best care for your horse’s dental needs before any problems occur.
What does routine preventative dental care for a horse involve?
The need for horses to receive frequent dental checks is because their permanent teeth have very long roots and continually erupt throughout the horse’s lifetime. Horses wear their teeth down by their constant grazing and chewing hay, but over time this grinding happens unevenly and sharp overgrowths called “points” develop on the edges of their teeth that touch their cheeks and tongue. The uneven wear is contributed to by their lower jaw being narrower than their upper jaw, so when they grind from side to side points form on the cheek side of the upper jaw and the tongue side of the lower jaw. These sharp edges need to be addressed, as well as any other malocclusions your horse may have due to the conformation of his mouth or type of food he eats to help him eat better, perform better, and prevent problems. This process is referred to a “floating” which originated from the masonry term for a file used to level cement or plaster. Floating just means smoothing sharp edges or taking off excess tooth structure. We remove least amount of crown possible, reducing the overgrowth to the tallest point of the normal teeth. Most patients require only 2-3 mm of crown reduction.
The first step of this process is the full mouth examination. The horse will be given sedation to allow muscle relaxation of the jaw and help decrease the time the procedure takes from start to finish. The veterinarian will then rinse out the mouth thoroughly and apply a dental speculum, a device designed to distribute pressure evenly in the mouth while allowing the vet to see all the teeth.
The vet will then use a bright light to look for missing, loose, or cracked teeth, ulcers, lacerations, foreign bodies, evidence of infection, or periodontal disease. Radiographs may be recommended if a problem is found that could be affecting the root and/or sinus cavities.
There are both hand floats and power or motorized types of floats available. At Performance Equine, we use both together. We can do a more precise and effective job faster which means less stress on the horse’s mouth and TMJ from having their mouth open. Floating should not be uncomfortable if the speculum is not left on in the open position too far or too long and the float is not left any one tooth for too long.
How often does my horse need to have an oral exam and when is a horse old enough to have its teeth floated for the first time?
Having a comprehensive dental exam does not necessarily mean that the horse will have to have any dental work done. As a general rule of thumb, most equine veterinarians recommend:
Young horses – 1-5 years old
◦Every 6 months at least a brief dental exam
Middle aged horses – 6-15 years old
◦Every 12 months minimum yearly dental exam
Geriatric horses – 16+ years old
◦Every 6 months dental examinations
What is the importance of a veterinarian doing the teeth?
Dental problems are the third most common clinical problem in practice (Traub-Dargatz et al., 1991), but this is something that is very difficult for an owner to evaluate properly compared to other problems. Without examining the inside of a horse’s mouth, you cannot determine the health of the mouth. There are symptoms a horse can show, but horses, being prey animals, are very stoic and sometimes have dramatic things going on inside their mouths but show very little in the way of clinical signs. Unless the owner has a full mouth speculum (and an adequate way to restrain the horse!) there’s really no way he or she can do anything more than a cursory dental exam. Horses with dental problems are at increased risk of impactions in their gastrointestinal system (colic) or in their esophagus (choke) from altered chewing. Having correct teeth increases a horse’s ability to digest his food and maintain proper body condition and usually influences performance in a positive way by eliminating pain induced by the bit. A large part of the reason why horses are living longer than ever is due to advances in veterinary dentistry practice.