AAEP Convention 2004: Horseman's Day--Dentistry

Mary DeLorey, DVM, owner of Northwest Equine Dentistry in Washington, began Horseman's Day at the 50th annual American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP) Convention in Denver, Colo., Dec. 4-8, 2004, with a presentation titled "Everything You Wanted to Know About Equine Dentistry." "Just a float isn't enough anymore," she told her listeners. "Comprehensive dental care is needed." She said that new research in the past five years has enlightened both veterinarians and horse owners concerning equine dental care. Along with that enlightenment has been the advent of advanced equipment, diagnostic tools, and treatment procedures.

Because of an improvement in general care, DeLorey said, it is not uncommon for horses to live into their 30s. The problem, she said, is that their teeth were developed to last into their 20s.

"Everything we as equine veterinarians can do to prevent the premature attrition of the horse's teeth will stand them in better stead to live better, longer lives," she said. Many equine dental problems begin at an early age, but many of these problems can be easily and quickly corrected if dealt with at that time, she added.

She posed these questions to her audience: "Did you know that all horses should receive a comprehensive dental examination before the age of 2 1/2, and at least yearly thereafter? Did you know that by the time most owners recognize that their horse is having difficulty eating or weight loss is apparent, that the horse's dental condition is likely to be severely abnormal? Did you know that many parrot-mouthed (over-bite) or sow-toothed (under-bite) horses can have near normal bites without surgery or orthodontics if the condition is recognized early? Did you know that periodontal disease is the number one cause of tooth loss in the horse? Did you know a qualified veterinarian can diagnose, treat, and--in many cases--prevent periodontal disease?"

She explained that equine teeth are hypsodont, which means that they continue to erupt over time. Once the horse has its permanent teeth, she explained, they continue to erupt at the rate of three to four millimeters per year. Since the horse's permanent teeth are about four inches long, that means it will have enough tooth length to service his needs for 20 to 25 years--providing that there are no problems along the way.

DeLorey then went into detail about the normal eruption of teeth and described the manner in which a horse chews--a side to side action.

"Once your horse has reached the age of six years," DeLorey said, "all his permanent teeth are in position and in use. If your horse has had periodic, comprehensive dental care up to this time and has no severe malocclusions (bite misalignments) or dental disease, he's well-poised for lifelong dental health. He should receive maintenance care, including smoothing of sharp edges, minor rebalancing, and troubleshooting every eight to 12 months. Horses involved in demanding disciplines, she said, might need dental care more frequently.

Older horses--those in the 16- to 18-year-old category--might require no more care than a younger horse, providing they have had the advantage of regular dental care along the way, she said. However, at this stage of the animal's life, close monitoring of his dental health is important.

"In the older horse," she said, "the crown that has been slowly erupting out of the jaw over his entire life is running out. This progression brings with it the tendency toward periodontal (gum) disease, the increased possibility of fractured teeth, diseased roots, and loose teeth. There are many different ways to approach these problems, and more work is being done to understand the best management options. Often, early periodontal disease can be successfully treated with focused cleaning and local use of special antibiotics and protective materials. Loose teeth recognized early can be shortened and rested so that the opposing tooth is not continuously grinding against them. Some of these may re-establish their firm connections. Other loose, damaged, or diseased teeth are best removed."

DeLorey told her listeners that horses are "incredibly stoic," especially as it relates to pain involving teeth and gums. They will endure the pain and continue eating, she said, until the pain becomes very severe or until physical forces make it impossible to do so.

Her take-home message was this: "One of the most important concepts that horse owners can embrace from all this is that prevention is the absolute key to equine dental health. The idea that a horse doesn't need dental attention until he is in his or her middle age must disappear. The tendency to abnormally wear the teeth is usually present very early in life. Minor abnormalities detected at the age of one to five years can usually be easily corrected and need never become an issue. If the same problems are left undiagnosed until that horse is older, much more aggressive techniques are required to correct the situation."

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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