Study: Dental Work Improves Feed Digestibility in Horses

Study: Dental Work Improves Feed Digestibility in Horses

Aim for routine dental care before a horse begins displaying signs of discomfort or difficulty chewing. The resulting increased digestibility means greater conversion of feed to energy and--ideally--reduced feed bills.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Many horse owners do not recognize signs of dental disease until a horse has obvious difficulty chewing, reduced appetite, feed dropping, and weight loss. Thus, even horses with mild dental disease benefit significantly from corrective dental work, according to recent research by a team from the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich in Germany.

In the study, researchers evaluated voluntary hay intake, fecal particle size, and nutrient digestibility of nine adult Warmbloods--that all chewed normally, but had mild to moderate enamel points of the molars and premolars--before and after dental correction.

Because the horses selected for the study were not having any apparent difficulty chewing, the researchers were not surprised to learn that voluntary feed consumption did not change after floating the horses' teeth. The horses continued to ingest the same amount of food as before the procedure, indicating they were not any more or any less comfortable.

On the contrary, the team was surprised to find that fecal particle length did not change after treatment. Previous studies involving horses with more significant dental disease revealed that fiber length was shorter after flotation. Thus, fecal fiber length could be a good predictor of severe, but not subtle, dental disease.

In the current study chemical analysis of the fecal material indicated increased nutrient digestibility of dry matter, energy, and crude fiber. "Even the correction of moderate dental findings may increase apparent digestibility significantly," the authors noted. Because concentrate digestibility improved more than forage digestibility, the researchers hypothesized that routine dental care could be more valuable for horses fed a concentrated diet than those on pasture, although further research is needed to confirm this extrapolation.

Said study co-author Ellen Kienzle, VMD, however, "if horses are eating mainly forage and (are not in hard work), dental problems take a long time before the owner notices that there is something wrong. By that time there may be serious problems like wavy mouth, step mouth, or supernumerary (extra) teeth, etc., and it may be too late for a complete correction."

These findings indicate that early detection and correction of dental disease is important. As all the horses in the study were able to chew feed more thoroughly after flotation, it is recommended that owners have a veterinary dental practitioner provide routine dental care before a horse begins displaying signs of discomfort or difficulty chewing. The resulting increased digestibility means greater conversion of feed to energy and--ideally--reduced feed bills.

For all horse over the age of five, veterinarians suggest an annual oral examination to identify enamel points prior to horses developing further dental disease, while younger horses should have their teeth checked every six months. As dental care is important not just for maintaining weight and comfort but also for ensuring a horse is able to perform at his best, the "right" time to float a horse's teeth might be sooner than you think.

About the Author

Kelleyerin Clabaugh, DVM

Kelleyerin Clabaugh, DVM, is an equine veterinarian in Portland, Ore., and owner of Aramat Farm, a sporthorse breeding facility.

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