Equine Dentistry–Caring for Your Horse’s Teeth

Horse Skull

Routine dental care is an important part of every horse’s preventive health care program. Dental equilibration or floating is performed to ensure proper position and contact of teeth so that the horse will chew properly for their entire lifetime. Yearly dental exams will detect any problems and allow early correction so the horse will be as comfortable as possible. An unhealthy mouth can cause pain and lead to bitting or bridle problems, colic, choke, weight loss, stiffness of the neck, and lameness. Horses are stoic and will likely not show obvious signs of dental problems until the condition is advanced. This can lead to premature wear of the reserve crown and eventually complete loss of the tooth. Yearly dental care will prevent unnecessary pain and suffering.Adult horses have 36-40 permanent teeth. The wolf teeth which can number from 0-4 are not considered permanent teeth and should be removed at a young age because they interfere with bit comfort. The basic dental formula for the adult horse consists of 12 incisors, 12 premolars, 12 molars, and 4 canine teeth. Males will generally have 4 canines and females will have 0-4 canine teeth. The foal has a full set of 24 deciduous or baby teeth at 6 months of age. These will be replaced by permanent teeth over the next 4 dentalyears. It is just as important to have dental exams on yearlings as adult horses every 6-12 months.All permanent teeth are in wear by 5 years of age and are approximately 75mm or 3-4 inches long. These teeth wear and erupt at an average of 2-3mm per year and should last the life time of the average horse which is 30-35 years.

At River Valley Veterinary Service we use a combination of motorized and hand instruments to perform a dental equilibration or dental float. A full mouth speculum and light are an absolute necessity to do equine dentistry. The horse must be sedated for the procedure which lasts 25-45 minutes. An assistant is needed to hold and steady the horse’s head. The upper jaw is 30% wider than the lower jaw so the teeth do not line up exactly. As horses grind their feed, sharp edges are formed on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and the inside of the lower cheek teeth. These sharp edges prevent proper grinding action and can cause ulcerations on the inside of the cheek membranes and on the tongue.

The first step in a routine dentistry is to file away these edges or “float” the teeth. Ramps or hooks can occur on the top or bottom arcade and must be filed before they protrude into the upper or lower jaw and prevent movement. While the full mouth speculum is still in place the teeth are examined for problems such as “wave” mouth, “step” mouth, loose or migrating teeth, periodontal disease, decay, and fractured teeth. Corrections to these conditions are made at this time. dental2A device called a wedge speculum is used to reach the incisors and canine teeth after the full mouth speculum is removed. The canine teeth are filed off to prevent long sharp points that are used as weapons between horses. One of the most important areas is the first cheek tooth where the bit space is located. These teeth are filed so there is a rounded appearance like the end of a thumb, called a “bit seat” creating a comfortable area for the bit to set, a very important aspect in riding and training horses. The next step is to evaluate the incisor teeth. Overgrown incisors or an imbalance of the incisors can cause problems with the normal side to side grinding and the ability of the horse to graze. When the dental is complete, jaw movement is checked for proper grinding action and sound. A routine dental will last the average horse one year.

Many malocclusions occur as permanent teeth are erupting or shortly after permanent teeth are in wear. Middle Dr. Viren doing a dental exam.ged and older horses (more than 15 years old) are more likely to develop periodontal disease fractured teeth and decay. Yearly dental care will allow correction of problems early so that the teeth will be in wear as long as possible. Older horses with advanced dental disease will often have to be fed pelleted diets that have a small particle size because they are no longer able to chew hay properly.

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