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Recognising Dental Problems

Horses are herbivores, which means they eat plants. The teeth are specially adapted  to accommodate the wearing of tooth surfaces that occurs when horses chew and grind fibrous plant materials. Here's some useful information to help you understand normal teeth development and recognise dental problems in your horse.

How do teeth change over time?

Just like in humans, the teeth of horses change over time. In foals, the early, small temporary teeth (called deciduous teeth) are eventually replaced with the larger permanent teeth, usually by the time the horse is around 5 years old.  These permanent teeth include molars and canine teeth (which are much more common in males than females).

Are dental examinations necessary in young horses?

A regular dental examination is useful for young horses, as well as older horses. In young horses, your vet can periodically check that the teeth are appearing (erupting) at the right time. Your vet can also check for the presence of “wolf teeth” (small first premolars more common in males than in females) that may need to be removed. Your vet will also check the shape (conformation) of your horse’s mouth and jaw bones, because any abnormal shape can affect the horse's ability to graze and chew its food. As the young horse begins to be ridden and trained, dental problems can cause a painful mouth, which may be aggravated by the presence of the bit.

What dental problems are important in older horses?

Older horses can suffer from a variety of dental problems. Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), irregular wear and tooth loss are the main problems. Depending on the stage and severity, horses may exhibit a variety of signs, like bad breath, excess salivation, dropped wads (“cuds”) of semi-chewed food, and weight loss. Horses with dental problems usually eat slowly and there may be incompletely digested feed visible in the manure.

Are there other signs my horse may have dental problems?

Horses with dental disease may have teeth that are very sensitive to extremes of temperature, so they may be hesitant to drink cold water, which increases the risk of dehydration and constipation. For some horses, teeth or mouth problems show up as behaviour changes when being ridden or driven. Horses may be reluctant to take the bit, shake their heads when being ridden or driven, or otherwise resist what is being asked of them.