AAEP Convention 2005: Horseman's Day Teeth

"A plain old float just isn't good enough anymore," explained Mary DeLorey, DVM, owner of Northwest Equine Dentistry in Washington, during the 51st Annual AAEP Convention, in Seattle, Wash., Dec. 3-7, 2005. A demand for more comprehensive dental care has fueled advances in diagnostic tools, treatments, equipment, and research.

"Owners are increasingly demanding higher-quality dental care for their horses," DeLorey said. "To meet that demand, veterinarians are going to have to invest time and money into the proper equipment and the expertise to use that equipment."

Improvements in health care have allowed horses to live into their 30s and beyond. The problem, DeLorey said, is that horses' teeth are only designed to last into their 20s under ideal conditions.

Beyond the Float
Properly equilibrating a horse's teeth goes beyond just removing the rough edges and leveling the rows of teeth. In the past, horses' teeth were not commonly addressed by the veterinarian until adulthood.  DeLorey said veterinarians should perform an oral examination within the first few days after a foal is born, checking for severe misalignments (overbites or underbites) that could making nursing difficult. Horses should receive a comprehensive dental exam again before the age of 2 and at least yearly thereafter.

"The tendency to abnormally wear the teeth is usually present very early in life," DeLorey explained. "Minor abnormalities detected at the age of one to five years can 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. In certain circumstances, the problems may become so severe that are not correctable at all."

To combat theses abnormalities, veterinarians are learning to use radiographs, CT scans, magnetic resonance imagining (MRI), and bone scans in ways that can aid their diagnoses of dental problems.

While there are orthodontic devices designed to correct severe over- and underbites, DeLorey said it is best to assist a natural correction with conservative means. For mild to moderate overbites, she said removing hooks, ridges, ramps, and other abnormalities is often enough to correct the misalignment.

Abnormalities and Problems
She explained that a horse's teeth are hypsodont, which means they will continue to erupt throughout the horse's life time. The enamel of hypsodont teeth is arranged in vertical columns within the tooth unlike brachydont teeth used by carnivores where the whole tooth is covered with enamel. Horses' adult teeth are three to four inches long in young adulthood. They wear away over time, each millimeter replaced by reserve portions of the tooth in the jaw bone.

"It's our job as veterinarians to maximize the life of the teeth," DeLorey said. "Horses in the wild don't live like our show horses or pleasure horses do now. They're not bred for healthy teeth. In the wild, horses with poor dental health would be weeded out--it's survival of the fittest."

Horses have 36-40 teeth depending on their age and sex (12 incisors, 24 molars, and up to four wolf teeth). An additional four canine teeth can be found in males, but these are not common in mares.

So what can go wrong in a horse's mouth?  Sharp edges, poor wear (hooks, ridges, etc.), asynchronous eruption (teeth coming in at different intervals), conformation abnormalities, injured and missing teeth, and crowding, along with infection and decay.

DeLorey said domestic horse keeping causes of some of these abnormalities. Bitting, high performance expectations, feeding programs, breeding, and limited pasture access all contribute to the health of the horse's teeth. Veterinarians need to be able to address the specific needs of these horses.

Knowing what to discuss with your veterinarian can help both parties understand your horse health needs. "There are no set standards for equine dentistry," DeLorey said. "We are currently working toward that."

Owners should be present for all dental work so you understand any problems. Ask your veterinarian: Do you examine young horses often? How do you evaluated and treat incisor misalignment? How do you recognize and treat periodontal disease? Also ask to see your horse's mouth before and after, then go over what is necessary to keep your horse healthy.

DeLorey said the most important concept that horse owners can embrace from all of this is that prevention is the absolute key to good equine dental health.

"If we want our equine partners to remain healthy and happy, it's important that we do everything we can to ensure that they are able to eat and work comfortably," DeLorey said. "A skilled veterinarian can prevent most abnormalities from ever becoming a problem, thereby maximizing the life of each tooth in your horse's head. Comprehensive dental care delivered regularly by an experienced veterinarian may be one of the most beneficial health care services you can provide for your horse."

For more information visit DeLorey's website at www.nwequinedentistry.com.

About the Author

Chad Mendell

Chad Mendell is the former Managing Editor for TheHorse.com .

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