Tooth Characteristics and Feed Digestibility

Think floating a horse's teeth improves his feed digestion? Think again. At the 2008 American Association of Equine Practitioners convention, held Dec. 6-10 in San Diego, Calif., a study showing that floating doesn't improve feed digestion was presented by James Carmalt, MA, VetMB, MVetSc, Dipl. ABVP, ACVS, associate professor of large animal surgery at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon, Canada. However,an exam should be done to look for areas of dental pain.

The study of 17 Quarter Horse and Draft horses found no apparent correlation between oral pathology score (a measure of mouth abnormalities) and any measure of feed digestibility, including nutrient analysis and feed particle size in the stomach and feces. However, that doesn't mean that floating is a waste of time and money, said Carmalt; it is valuable for fixing painful dental problems.

"Digestibility is a software (soft tissue) problem, not a hardware (tooth) problem," he commented. "We're getting away from routinely floating teeth and looking at soft tissue problems such as cheek ulceration, endodontic (inner tooth/root) problems, etc."

This shift to an increased focus on soft tissues is supported by others in the dentistry field. Jack Easley, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP, a dental practitioner in Shelbyville, Ky., made the following comments during the question/answer session: "Years ago we would look at hooks, waves, ramps, and step mouth (various tooth wear patterns) and call it pathology. Now we think they're the result of pathology somewhere else, such as ulcers/oral pain causing changed mastication (chewing motion) and abnormal tooth wear. For example, weight loss in older horses isn't so much from tooth wear characteristics as from pain, which makes them take all day to eat (slow, reduced feed intake is the problem, rather than ineffective chewing). That's what we need to deal with--the cause of the pain, rather than the resulting abnormal tooth wear."

Thus, the take-home message of this presentation was that annual/biannual dental exams are still very much needed to identify and address problems in teeth and soft tissues, but floating the teeth should be done to reduce pain, not to improve digestion (because in most cases it won't).

About the Author

Christy M. West

Christy West has a BS in Equine Science from the University of Kentucky, and an MS in Agricultural Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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