4 Top Reasons for Making Horse Dental Care a Priority

Veterinarian examining a horse's teeth.
Veterinarian examining a horse's teeth.

Making horse dental care a priority can save not only your horse's life, but can save time and money and give you and your horse the quality of life and companionship you both deserve

According to Dr. Christine Woodford, it is imperative for stabled horses to receive routine dental care for a longer healthy life. "Proper dental care not only will make a positive influence on the horse's health and performance, it can add 5-15 years to a horse's life."

Dr. Ben Schroeder at Cedar County Veterinary Services in Hartington, Neb., recommends that horse owners seek dental care for their animals by the time they're one year old.

According to Dr. Schroeder, "When a horse is young, their teeth are still soft and still gaining calcium because the teeth are softer at that age, they can become sharp in a shorter time. At that age, dental care is extremely vital to preparing a young horse to begin its training."

Four reasons for regular horse dental care:

  1. Improved horse health and comfort and help in maintaining ideal weight
  2. Improved horse performance
  3. Improved feed efficiency with a reduction in horse feed costs.
  4. Reduction or elimination of behaviors that compromise horse and care taker safety such as rearing, resisting the bit, and head shaking.

In addition, a foal should have its mouth examined in the first week of life for proper jaw alignment and incisor placement.

During his life time, the horse's teeth, unlike ours, are continually erupting as the portion of the tooth that is in the socket becomes the visible portion as it erupts. As the tooth erupts, its comes into occlusion or contact with the tooth it opposes. This intimate relation between opposing teeth is what allows horses to masticate and digest forage such as grass and alfalfa.

Throughout the horse's life span, teeth will naturally wear down; during this dynamic process both normal and abnormal wear patterns can occur. The result can be either pain or premature wear out of the teeth. It is this finite life span of the teeth and the discomfort that can result from even regular wear patterns that makes annual dental exams important for the horse.

Horse teeth abnormalities including hooks

Horse teeth abnormalities including hooks

Sharp enamel points can cause sores in the horse's mouth and allow bacteria and toxins to enter the horse's bloodstream and can cause behavior problems in horses especially when a bit is placed in the horse's mouth.

In addition, the development of wolf teeth and other dental anomalies can cause a young horse great discomfort resulting in fighting the bit and making training more difficult. Any pressure on the horse's cheeks is capable of rubbing on these teeth which tend to be pointed.

According to Deb V. Eldredge, DVM, most horse owners and veterinarians find it wise to remove any wolf teeth at about a year of age. Young horses should receive frequent dental checks to detect any malocclusions, to remove any "caps" leftover from baby or deciduous teeth, and to pull any wolf teeth.

Removing wolf teeth is definitely a job for your veterinarian. Your horse will require some sedation and a nerve block at the root of any teeth to be removed.

Although horses usually don't develop cavities like humans do, problems can occur with pits, chips, splits, breaks, sharp points and other conditions that compromise the tooth.

In addition, a horse's upper jaw is wider than his lower jaw. Therefore the outside edges of the top teeth and the inside edges of the lower teeth do not get worn down in the same way and they tend to develop sharp points. These sharp enamel points can make it difficult for horses to properly chew their food. This leads to large particles of unchewed hay or forage in the digestive tract and causes the horse to be at risk for impaction colic.

The sharp enamel points also cause sores in the horse's mouth and allow bacteria and toxins to enter the horse's bloodstream. The sores result in behavior problems especially when a bit is placed in the horse's mouth.

Fractured teeth, teeth with exposed pulp cavities, periodontal disease and abscesses are other common equine dental problems.

Although horses usually don't develop cavities, problems can occur with pits, chips, splits, breaks and other conditions that compromise the tooth. Attention to developing dental problems before they become serious enough to affect the horse's health or compromise his well-being is extremely important.

Important dental check suggestions for horse owners

  1. On a regular basis, handle your horse's head and mouth area to make the horse comfortable with having the mouth examined.
  2. If you own a foal, exam the foals teeth as soon as possible, checking for baby teeth called caps that are pushed out by the growing permanent teeth by the time the horse is about two years old.
  3. If caps are creating pain and soreness, you may have your veterinarian remove the caps. The same goes for wolf teeth that are extra teeth and may grow in crooked or in the wrong spot.
  4. With an adult horse, open the mouth and check for uneven wear on teeth resulting in points or sharp edges that will keep the horse from properly chewing feed.  Also note any teeth that are beginning to protrude excessively or cause mal-alignment or malocclusion.
  5. Note any changes in eating habits, loss of weight, bad breath, dropping half-eaten food, holding the head at a strange angle, bolting or head tossing when being bridled or ridden. Any of these conditions may be caused by dental problems.

Any of these problems indicate that your horse should be examined by an equine dentist or by your veterinarian to determine if the horse needs dental care to prevent health and behavior problems.

Six common signs that your horse needs dental care:

  1. Weight loss
  2. Chronic colic
  3. Drooling or quidding resulting from abnormal chewing
  4. Nasal discharge
  5. Foul breath
  6. Misbehavior such as resisting the bit, rearing or head tossing

According to Angela Hawker, DVM, of Cambridge Equine Hospital, by the time a horse begins to loose weight, drop feed from the mouth while chewing, or show other signs of dental problems, any issues with the horse's mouth are quite advanced. It stands to reason that making preventive dental care for your horse a priority is as important as other aspects of health care such as vaccinations and deworming.

A change in chewing habits is the most obvious sign of dental problems. The horse may dribble feed, soak feed in a water bucket, hold the head to one side when eating, or not eat at all especially when it comes to hard grain or coarse hay.

The horse may "quid" the food, a process during which the food, particularly hay is rolled into balls rather than being properly masticated. The balls of food often fall out of the horse's mouth and drop on the ground.

Rather than chew with a painful mouth the horse may try to swallow hay and grain before chewing is complete. This may contribute to choke, colic, indigestion and weight loss.

Did you know?

What a horse eats as well as whether they're eating from the ground or a feedbox will affect how the teeth wear. The performance required of the horse, such as a brood mare or a performance horse, also plays a role in the condition of the teeth.

During cold weather when water is cold, and at other times, a horse may limit its intake of water because of the pain involved which may result in serious harm to overall general health.

A horse with dental problems may become very nervous and develop habits such as cribbing and stall weaving. Under saddle, a horse may toss his head, lung, rear and generally be unsettled and unwilling to perform correctly and consistently.

The best dental care for horses depends on a regularly scheduled dental checkup and floating of teeth by a veterinarian or a credentialed dental technician. Just as in a human dental checkup, the horse dentist or technician will examine the entire oral cavity of the horse to determine the health status not only of the teeth, but also the gums, tissues, and other features of the horse's head and mouth.

Based on the examination, the horse dentist or technician will then discuss the horse's dental health and the need for any dental work with the horse's owner.

Four categories of equine dental care

The kinds of dental treatment your horse may receive can be broken down into four different categories:

  1. The most common treatment for equines is the process of floating or rasping the teeth also referred to as equilibration. This procedure should be performed on a routine basis geared to the needs of the horse which may be every 6 months to once a year. The procedure is not painful to the horse and can usually be done with minimal restraint with an assistant holding the horse's head, although excitable horses may need to be tranquilized. Floating corrects minor abnormalities of wear and controls sharp edges and points that develop as the horse chews its feed.
  2. Tartar removal is necessary with some horses, This yellowish build-up of organic and inorganic substances that accumulate on the horse's teeth is usually removed with the use of air abrasion, dental picks and other scraping instruments. Individual metabolism or chemical makeup in the horse's mouth will affect how often tartar needs to be removed.
  3. Periodontal pocket repair helps keep the horse's mouth, teeth, and bone structure in a healthy condition. When periodontal pockets form, the gums separate from the teeth resulting in mechanical and toxic bacterial damage to the tooth. If not corrected, these infected, bacteria-laden pockets may damage the gums and lead to loss of the tooth. The equine dentist will remedy this problem by irrigating and debriding the affected area using compressed nitrogen, water and aluminum oxide powder along with disinfectants. When necessary, a prescription for antibiotics may be necessary.
  4. An equine dentist can use bonding agents, epoxies, and restoration techniques to correct damage and wear and tear on the horse's teeth. These repairs prevent tooth loss, fracturing, and cupping problems that affect the horse's ability to chew properly and also prevent problems with bits and bridles during riding and training exercises.

Consider this

A horse with untreated dental problems may result in expensive veterinarian bills to treat conditions caused by neglected teeth. Regular dental check-ups, floating of teeth, and promotion of good general health will help maximize the pleasure you get from your horse AND reduce your costs of ownership.

About the Author

EquiMed Staff

EquiMed staff writers team up to provide articles that require periodic updates based on evolving methods of equine healthcare. Compendia articles, core healthcare topics and more are written and updated as a group effort. Our review process includes an important veterinarian review, helping to assure the content is consistent with the latest understanding from a medical professional.