Just like humans, ensuring your horse's teeth and mouth are in good shape is an important part of keeping your horse healthy. Find out what you need to know about:
- Good dental care practices
- Irregular wear
- Periodontal disease
- Tooth decay
- Recognising dental problems
Routine dental examinations can help to identify problems (or the potential for problems) in your horse’s mouth, which can help keep your horse healthy. For the average adult horse, it's good practice to have a dental examination every year. However, older horses may require more frequent examinations (e.g. every 6 months).
What's involved in a dental examination?
- A dental examination will usually require your horse to be sedated so that its mouth can be kept open and your vet can make a full inspection. Your vet will examine all surfaces of the teeth and gums, the tongue and the rest of the horse's mouth to identify any problems.
What is floating?
- Unlike humans, a horse's teeth continue to grow and can develop rough or sharp edges that can make it difficult to chew or cause discomfort. So your vet will smooth back any uneven surfaces or sharp points using a file or rasp called a "float” (which is why the process is sometimes called “floating” a horse's teeth). Floating can be carried out with a manual file or power-operated file. The aim is to balance and realign the surfaces of the teeth, in order to keep your horse's mouth in good condition.
Correcting any irregular wear of the surfaces of the teeth is the main reason horses should have a routine dental examination (every year for most adult horses, or every 6 months for older horses).
The degree of irregular wear of the teeth can be influenced by many factors including:
- the shape of the horse’s mouth
- its age
- the type of diet and way it is fed (e.g. pasture feeding vs. commercial horse feed)
- previous mouth infections
- the amount of dental care the horse has previously received.
Why is irregular wear so important
- Uneven tooth surfaces can interfere with the horse's ability to chew or grind its food properly, particularly if the upper and lower teeth don't align correctly.
- Sharp points or edges that develop on teeth can rub on the gums or the tongue and lead to the development of painful ulcers.
Just like humans, horses can suffer from periodontal disease, which is a condition involving the tissues surrounding the teeth which normally help to anchor the teeth within the jaw bone. Untreated periodontal disease can result in loss of teeth.
What are the signs of periodontal disease
- Mild periodontal disease often has few or no symptoms (although some horses may salivate more than normal). But as the condition worsens, the gums become red, swollen and inflamed and may develop ulcers. The horse's mouth also becomes increasingly painful.
- The tissues around the base of the tooth loosen which creates a space that can fill with food particles. As a result of this trapped decaying food, the horse often develops bad breath.
What happens if periodontal disease is not treated?
- Left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to the tooth loosening so much that it falls out. If the tooth is lost, the tooth in the opposite jaw begins to grow, because it is no longer kept in check during chewing and grinding of food.
- This can lead to more problems in the horse's mouth. In some horses, wads of partially chewed food may drop from the mouth during eating.
Prevention is better than cure
- If your horse develops significant periodontal disease, your vet will have to remove any loose teeth, address the inflammation, and try to correct the alignment of the remaining teeth.
- This may require several visits. Antibiotics may also be needed to combat any infection
- As with many things in life, prevention is better than cure. Regular dental examinations by your vet (at least annually) can help identify and treat periodontal disease to prevent more serious problems later on.
What can be done if my horse loses teeth?
- If periodontal disease and loss of teeth make it difficult to chew properly, then the horse may begin to lose body condition.
- There are "complete" equine diets that are specially formulated for horses with significant tooth loss. These diets are supplemented with nutrients normally obtained when horses graze, and can be very useful to maintain the condition of older horses with significant periodontal disease.
Tooth decay (also called dental caries) is a common problem in horses and can progress to the point where an abscess develops. If this occurs, the affected tooth will need to be extracted.
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.
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