Equine Dental Care
Mark A. Wallace, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM
Reidsville Veterinary Hospital - NC
Regular dental care has become an important part of health maintenance for today's horse. Proper teeth care can increase feed utilization, maximize horse comfort, and improve the overall health and performance of your horse. Examination of the horse's mouth is an important part of the routine veterinary visit.
Horses have evolved as continuous grazing animals and may eat for 10-12 hours a day. Adult male horses may have as many 44 permanent teeth. The front teeth, or incisors, are used for grasping and shearing of forage while the rear, or cheek teeth, are used for grinding of feed. Horse's teeth continue to erupt and wear, resulting in an increase in dental problems as they age. Signs of dental problems can include dropping of food while chewing, excessive drooling, chewing with head tilted, bit discomfort or resistance, head tossing, abnormal head carriage while ridden, nasal discharge, facial swellings, bad breath, choke, weight loss and poor performance.
One of the most common equine dental procedures is floating. Floating is the process of filing or rasping a horse's teeth. (Incidentally, the term floating originated in masonry and carpentry to describe the leveling or smoothing of plaster.) Cheek teeth develop sharp enamel points even under normal grazing conditions. The upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw allowing for the formation of points on the outside of the upper cheek teeth and on the tongue side of the lower cheek teeth. Floating involves the filing of these sharp points, removing hooks, and may include leveling of the molar arcades when necessary.
Depending on the use of the horse, creation of a bit seat through the rounding of the front ends of the first cheek teeth may be indicated. A sedative will often be given to the horse by the veterinarian before floating, to keep the horse comfortable and to allow for a thorough evaluation of the mouth.
The age of the horse will influence the type of dental abnormalities and procedures that may be necessary. Foals and yearlings should be checked for congenital and developmental problems. Some yearlings may develop excessively sharp points on their cheek teeth that will require floating. Before entering training, 2-3 year old horses should be floated to remove sharp points and retained deciduous caps should be removed. Wolf teeth are routinely removed to prevent bit interference.
Horses in the 2-5 year old range often require frequent dental care. During this time a large number of adult teeth are erupting and deciduous (baby) teeth are shedding. Also, deciduous teeth are softer and tend to develop points faster than adult teeth. Mature horses (5 years and older) require a thorough oral exam at least once yearly, even if signs of dental disease are not apparent. The mouth is inspected for hooks, enamel points, uneven wear, tartar, normal lateral jaw excursion and the teeth are floated accordingly.
Proper dental care is important through the teenage years to maintain an even bite plane into old age. Horses in their twenties have teeth that are no longer erupting, and lack of care earlier in life can lead to uneven wear patterns that may be impossible to correct.
Proper dental care is essential to your horse's health, performance and comfort. Consult your veterinarian concerning the specific dental needs of your horse and make an oral exam a part of your horse's preventative health maintenance.
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