Annual Dental Exams Important for Horse Health

Going to the dentist annually is not only necessary for humans; it is an important part of equine health. Annual dental exams are extremely important for horses young and old to help ensure the animals' comfort and performance.

Cleet Griffin, DVM, Dipl. ABVP, a clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine Biomedical Sciences can testify that horses are known to develop a number dental problems that may cause pain and lead to poor performance. But how will a horse owner know when the animal is experiencing dental problems, and when they need to call the veterinarian? Griffin stated that dental problems may be subtle or obvious, but the following are a few cardinal signs that a horse may need to have its teeth examined: dropping quite a bit of feed while eating, holding its head tilted to the side while chewing, eating slowly, spitting out large balls of poorly chewed hay, presence of excessively long fibers in the stool, or foul breath.

Signs of dental pain during riding might include chewing on the bit, noticing blood-tinged saliva from the mouth, or shaking the head excessively.

�Horses should have their teeth examined by a veterinarian at least once a year to ensure high dental health, but if any of these symptoms are displayed, it is very important for the owner to have the horse examined in the near future,� said Griffin.

If dental problems are not resolved there can be serious consequences; colic, choke, sinus infection, and poor athletic performance have all been cited as problems that can be caused by dental abnormalities in horses.

The field of equine dentistry has evolved with the domestication of horses. In the wild, horses graze for about sixteen hours a day, all the while taking in tough, fibrous vegetation which also contains small, hard sand-like particles. The horse then grinds its teeth laterally which has a dual purpose.

�First, the lateral grinding of the horse�s teeth obviously enables the animal to break the food down into smaller particles to aid in digestion. But it also serves a secondary purpose of slowly wearing away the chewing surface of the horse�s teeth.� (Unlike human teeth, a horse�s teeth continue to slowly erupt over the lifetime of the horse.).

Domesticated horses might not graze for extended periods of time and are given manufactured food products like hay and feed. These products are easier to chew, causing the horse to grind its teeth far less compared to horses grazing a forage diet. With a grain-rich diet, the horse chews with the mouth moving more up and down instead of laterally. The reduced amount of grinding contributes to the development of sharp points on the animal�s cheek teeth which can produce cheek and tongue discomfort. (For more information see Motion Capture Confirms: Horses Chew Different Feeds in Different Ways.)

�Sharp points can be easily eliminated by a process called floating, which is simply filing and smoothing the sharp areas,� Griffin said. �This can alleviate the discomfort the animal feels while chewing or being ridden.�

Horses may also encounter dental problems when the baby teeth are replaced by the adult teeth. This transition happens between the ages of two and five, and should be closely monitored by a veterinarian. Adult teeth may not come in correctly because of the baby teeth�s inability to detach properly, which can cause a number problems for the animal.

As the horse gets older, more serious dental problems can come to the forefront. Griffin stated that older horses are more prone to the following malocclusions: abnormal amounts of wear on the crown of the tooth, a fractured crown, loose teeth, or even periodontal disease (inflammation of gums or tissues in the mouth caused by food being packed into small spaces in between the teeth).

To reduce the likelihood of a horse having dental problems, owners should have their horse examined annually. Many problems can be reduced or alleviated before they cause pain or reduce performance in the animal.


Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine Biomedical Sciences.

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