Routine dentistry is essential to maintaining a healthy horse, and can help prevent the development of significant pathology later in life.
Unfortunately, not all horses are as proud of their teeth as this one! A healthy mouth is not only essential for efficient feed utilization, but also for pain free performance. Well recognized signs of dental pain include weight loss, dropping feed and abnormal head carriage. Domestic horses’ diet is very different to the tough fibrous material of their ancestors. Equine teeth erupt continuously at 2-3mm per year throughout a horse’s life. Because of this continuous eruption, any teeth which are out of alignment with opposing teeth will develop overgrowths as there is nothing to wear them down. This often develops as ‘hooks’ on the front of the first upper cheek teeth and the back of the last lower cheek teeth. These hooks can interfere with the normal chewing cycle and also stop the upper and lower teeth sliding past each other when the horse’s head changes position, which can cause discomfort.
Problems with teeth are always more easily corrected before they progress to an advanced stage, therefore a regular, thorough oral examination is recommended to detect early signs of any problems.
Examination at nine months when the deciduous teeth have erupted would be the first proper dental visit. Wolf teeth are the vestigial first molar tooth and are not present in all horses. Some wolf teeth can cause problems in horses that wear bits, so they are often extracted. Although small, wolf teeth do have roots and ligaments and should be extracted carefully under sedation using local anaesthetic for welfare reasons. If the horse is not vaccinated for tetanus, an antitoxin should be given at the same time.
In horses younger than five years it is recommended that examination be performed six monthly because this is a time when permanent teeth are erupting. Caps are the deciduous cheek teeth remnants which are pushed out by the erupting permanent tooth. These are often sharp and can cause pain, and excessive salivation. Teeth should be floated and examined before your horse is broken in to minimize potential pain.
Older horses are generally able to be maintained with examination every 12 months. Unfortunately, we commonly see horses that have not had routine dental visits, resulting in large overgrowths. Sometimes it is not possible to correct these in one visit, and these horses require regular follow up to try and re-establish normal dentition. It is also important to evaluate the gums, as just like people, horses can suffer from gingivitis (inflammation of the gums). This can be a particular problem in broodmares, as chronic shedding of bacteria from the mouth into the bloodstream can result in reproductive losses.
Only registered veterinarians are legally able to use intravenous sedation in New Zealand. Having a veterinarian skilled in equine dentistry perform dental work enables sedation to be used in the same visit with no added call-out expense, and has the advantage that the whole horse can be evaluated and other conditions unrelated to the teeth can also be diagnosed and treated.