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Basic Dental Care for Horses


2022/03/05


By Kentucky Equine Research Staff

The condition of a horse or pony’s teeth often serves as a bellwether for its overall well-being. If an owner allocates time and money to dental care, she likely addresses other routine maintenance: timely vaccinations and deworming, regular hoof care by a competent farrier, and prompt veterinary attention when necessary.

Why then do well-kept horses often have neglected teeth? Owner uncertainty often precludes horses from getting the dental care they require. “Where do I find a competent equine dentist?” “What will a visit entail?” “How much will dental examination and correction cost?”

To find a dentist in your area, consult with your veterinarian, or check the Bulletin Board in the Mid-South Horse Review. Legal requirements for equine dentistry can vary by country and state. Once you’ve identified an experienced professional, reach out to him. Request references and check them. Never be too timid to ask about the prices of basic services, but it will come as no surprise that the final cost likely depends on services rendered.

Basic dental services include:
  • Examination. Most dentists will use a speculum to gently pry open the mouth so every structure in the mouth can be evaluated thoroughly. When properly fitted, the speculum in no way hurts the horse. Problematic teeth can injure cheeks, gums, and the tongue, so the entire oral cavity should be examined closely.
  • Floating. Perhaps the most common dental procedure, floating smooths sharp points on cheek teeth, corrects misalignments, and balances dental arcades. To accomplish this, dentists use either a handheld tool or a motorized instrument. Either method is acceptable so long as the practitioner is skilled.
  • Age-dependent procedures. Age dictates the necessity for some procedures. Wolf teeth, for example, erupt near the first premolar and are sometimes removed because they can interfere with bitting. Baby teeth, also called deciduous teeth, that do not shed properly and continue to sit on top of permanent teeth are called caps and must be removed.
Other procedures are less common but may be just as important to the health of an individual horse: incisor adjustment, usually shortening or evening incisors so horses can grasp grass and chew more efficiently; addition of bit seats to the molars of performance horses; correction of overly long or sharp canine teeth; and tooth extraction. Extractions are most common in aged horses, those in their late teens and beyond, but horses of all ages can have diseased or fractured teeth that necessitate removal.

Many horses require the services of a dentist once a year, though young, old, and those with chronic conditions such as periodontal disease may need to be examined more frequently. Indicators of dental problems include:
  • Dropping feed from mouth when chewing or chewing with obvious difficulty, sometimes raising or tilting the head;
  • Tossing head, opening mouth excessively, lolling tongue, or chewing the bit excessively when bridled;
  • Performing poorly, including pulling on the reins, becoming more difficult to turn or stop, or exhibiting uncharacteristic misbehavior, such as rearing or bucking.
Lapses in dental care can create health problems for horses: sharp points can cause ulcers or abscesses on tongue or cheek tissue; wolf teeth can be the source of pain and consequent behavioral problems; and crooked, loose, or painful teeth can keep horses from processing feedstuffs adequately to derive optimal nutrition from them.

“At times, managing horses may seem like an exercise in organization, scheduling one healthcare professional after another: veterinarian, nutritionist, farrier, dentist,” said Catherine Whitehouse, M.S., a nutritionist at Kentucky Equine Research. “These specialists elevate the care that we can offer our horses, which only benefits them in the long run.”

“I frequently ask horse owners to describe dental care. When faced with unexplained weight loss, this is one of the first things that comes to mind because poor dentition is often the reason for ribbiness, especially when the horse has sufficient forage and feed available to him,” Whitehouse said. “I cannot overstate the value of regular and skillful dentistry to any horse’s nutritional well-being.”

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