Do I Need a Dental Exam For My Horse?

Q:I have a Morgan mare who, I think, might have something wrong with her teeth. What should I expect from a dental examination for my horse?

A: The veterinarian and the owner need to discuss what the owner wants and expects from a dental examination. Dental examinations can vary from a superficial examination to identify major abnormalities only, to a detailed examination that hopefully will reveal the smallest dental problem. The age and use of the horse will influence the type of examination performed.

Dental exam on a horse

The age and use of the horse will influence the type of dental examination that needs to be performed.

If the owner only wants major abnormalities identified, the examination might consist of flushing the mouth to remove feed and hay, a visual examination, and possibly a manual examination. Some veterinarians are skillful enough to palpate parts of all teeth of most horses. This type of examination might identify many problems, especially if the horse is amenable to the examination. However, it has the potential to miss problems, especially at the back of the mouth. Most horses that have had the sharp enamel points floated off in the last year will feel good if only the outsides of the upper first and second cheek teeth are palpated. The points start redeveloping on the caudal lower cheek teeth, which are difficult to palpate without the use of a full-mouth speculum.

If the horse has any signs of problems in eating or performance that could be related to dental problems and/or the owner wants and expects top-level dental care, then a very complete examination should be done. It is difficult to visualize all aspects of the back cheek teeth so palpation is a vital part of the examination. Most horses will need to be sedated and a full-mouth speculum used for this thorough examination. A full-mouth speculum must be used to palpate all aspects of all cheek teeth. Some practitioners are comfortable using the full-mouth speculum in unsedated horses, but most are not. Sedation of the horse has become necessary as more thorough examinations and extensive corrective procedures are performed.

Newborn foals should be examined to see if there is proper alignment of the incisors (parrot-mouthed or sow-mouthed) or congenital defects of the lips or palate. Procedures that help in correcting malalignment might be available.

All horses going into training should have dental examinations to allow the identification and correction of dental problems such as sharp enamel points and the presence of wolf teeth. Sharp enamel points will cause discomfort and send mixed signals to the horse as a bit or noseband might push the cheeks into the sharp points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth. Not all wolf teeth cause problems, but no wolf tooth ever helped the horse, and some do cause problems. Wolf teeth also interfere with the rounding and smoothing of the first cheek teeth (bit seats), so wolf teeth should be extracted.

Other problems that should be identified include retained deciduous incisors and premolars (caps), tall/long (dominant) teeth, hooks, ramps, beaks, and unlevel chewing surfaces front to back. The chewing surface of the cheek teeth normally slopes 10-15% from side to side.

Infected or diseased teeth do occur, although they are rare. They are indicated by facial or mandibular swellings, draining tracts, slow eating, holding the head to the side, and bad odor of the mouth. If there are signs of an infected tooth, radiographic examination probably is indicated.

The owner should expect to be told and/or shown what problems/abnormalities have been identified, what effect the abnormalities might have on eating, performance, and long-term dental health. The owner should be given an estimate of the professional fees for the indicated corrective procedures. If the corrective procedures are beyond the examiner's expertise, knowledge, or instrumentation, the owner should expect to be referred to a specialist.

Dental examinations are important in the health management of the horse and should be performed on a regular basis. This might be on a six to 12 month basis as indicated by the horse's age, use, expected level of performance, and overall condition of the teeth. Late two-year olds or late three-year olds in top level competition might need to be seen every month as they shed (or fail to shed) deciduous premolars (caps) and the new permanent cheek teeth develop sharp enamel points. A 10-year old in light pleasure riding should be examined yearly to see if corrective procedures are indicated. A few horses have such bad occlusions that they need corrective procedures every three months, although that is unusual. Owners need to observe their horse's eating habits and performance characteristics closely. If the horse changes either eating and/or performance habits, a dental examination is indicated. Abnormal conditions found at examination need to be corrected. This prevents minor problems from becoming major problems. Good dental care helps reduce colic and choke, prolongs the effectiveness of the teeth, increases feed efficiency, and enhances performance.

About the Author

W. Leon Scrutchfield, DVM

W. Leon Scrutchfield, DVM, is a Professor Emeritus at Texas A&M University with special interests in equine field service and dentistry.

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