Basic Dental Care For Horses

Horses October 29, 2014 Print Friendly and PDF
Dental checkups are essential for horses. As a horse becomes older, the shape and angle of its teeth begin to change and some problems may occur. Knowing what problem signs to look for will help prevent further dental problems. This article explains what an owner and an equine dentist should look for when examining a horse's teeth, based on the age of the horse.

By Dr. Jenifer Nadeau, Equine Extension Specialist, University of Connecticut

When was the last time you had your horse’s teeth checked? If you’re like most horse owners, you may not be aware that all horses should receive a complete dental exam at least yearly, starting from their first year of life. By the time most horse owners recognize that a horse is having trouble eating or is losing weight, that horse’s teeth may be severely abnormal.

Equine dentists or equine veterinarians that perform dentistry have to look for different situations in the horse’s mouth at different stages of the horse’s life. The following table lists situations that are most common at these stages. 

Birth – 18 months

(should be examined at least once a year) Will be evaluated for:

  • Defects that the horse may have been born with related to head symmetry or chewing function
  • Proper eruption of teeth
  • Incisor alignment
  • Sharp enamel points on teeth
  • Improper position and number of teeth
  • Abnormal wear

18-52 months

(should be examined twice a year) Will be evaluated for:

  • Eruption cysts in the gums over permanent teeth
  • Gingivitis (inflammation of gums)
  • Periodontal disease
  • Loose or infected caps or cap slivers (A cap is the remnant of the crown of a deciduous tooth after the roots has been resorbed.)
  • Sharp enamel points on the premolar, molar and wolf teeth (These are the first upper premolars that are not fully functional or formed.)
  • Unequal eruption of permanent incisors
  • Wolf teeth interference with bit
  • Rounding of edges of front cheek teeth (first premolar) to keep bitting comfortable

4-10 years

(should be examined once a year) Will be evaluated for:

  • Contact and balance of bite surface
  • Sharp enamel points on cheek teeth
  • Sharp edges of cheek teeth which interfere with the bit
  • Jaw balance
  • Symmetry, contact, length and balance of incisors

10-18 years

(should be examined once a year) Will be evaluated for:

  • Abnormalities of wear that can lead to abnormal crown wear, crown fracture and periodontal disease
  • “Wave” mouth due to abnormalities of wear on central molars making teeth look wave-like
  • Sharp enamel points on teeth that may require extensive correction (hooks,* ramps** or beaks***)
  • Balance of tooth alignment
  • Length of canine teeth if needed

18 and older

(may need frequent oral exams and dental maintenance to keep mouth healthy)

  • Periodontal disease (60 percent to 80 percent incidence)
  • Tartar accumulation
  • Gingivitis
  • Tooth loosening
  • Loss of grinding surface of teeth
  • Abnormalities of wear
  • Need for geriatric diet
  • Sharp enamel points on teeth (hooks, ramps or beaks)
  • Balance between upper and lower jaws

Signs of Dental Problems

These are signs that a horse is having problems with his teeth:

  • long, unchewed particles of hay in manure
  • changes in eating or drinking habits
  • irregular movement of lower jaw
  • bumps or enlargement on jaw/side of face
  • abnormal tongue carriage
  • sharp points on front of first lower or upper molars
  • oral pain
  • head shy
  • quidding – dropping partially chewed food from mouth
  • weight loss
  • halitosis
  • abnormal slurping sound during chewing
  • food pocketing between teeth
  • loosening and loss of teeth
  • lacerations of cheek and tongue
  • “hamster-like” cheek swelling
  • very slow chewing
  • inappetence
  • holding head in abnormal position during eating
  • using one side of the mouth for chewing
  • reluctance to eat hay
  • spending more time eating
  • abnormal head carriage
  • resistance to bit
  • head shaking during work
  • foul smelling, chronic nasal discharge from one nostril
  • excess salivation
  • bleeding from mouth
  • swelling or distortion of lips
  • tooth displacement

Equine Dentists

Next, you might be wondering how to go about selecting an equine dentist or equine veterinarian that specializes in dentistry. Keep in mind, some states only allow veterinarians to perform dentistry procedures. An equine dentist does not have to be certified; therefore, there is no universal standard of quality. You might consider checking to see if the equine dentist is a member of the International Association of Equine Dentistry, an organization of non-veterinary equine dental practitioners that has set certain standards.You may want to check to see if a veterinarian is a member of the American Veterinary Dental Society or has a fellowship in the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry. Additionally, the veterinarian could have take continuing education classes in dentistry offered by the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Word of mouth or referral is another good way to find an equine dentist or veterinarian. Also, keep in mind, it's not unreasonable to meet with a dentist and watch the dentist work on another client's horse before making an appointment.

Summary

Hopefully, this information has enhanced your knowledge of equine dentistry and its importance. Please do not attempt to perform dental procedures on your horse yourself. Seek an experienced equine dentist or equine veterinarian to undertake this necessary care for your horse. Proper dental care from the beginning of your horse’s life can help eliminate problems before they start.

Resources

  • Allen T. September 2004. Changes in Horse Dentistry. The Horse 98.
  • Easely J. 1998. Dental care and instrumentation. Veterinary Clinics of North America Equine Practice 14(2): 309-332.
  • Dixon PM and Dacre I. 2005. A review of equine dental disorders. The Veterinary Journal 169: 165-187.
  • Moore J. August 1992. Tooth Triumphs and Troubles. Equus 178: 40-44, 77-81.
  • Scrutchfield WL and Shumacher J. 1993. Examination of the oral cavity and routine dental care. Veterinary Clinics of North America Equine Practice 9(1): 123-131.
  • Thomas HS. October 2004. Getting to the root of it. Stable Management 26-29.
  • Tremaine H. 1997. Dental care in horses. In Practice 19(4): 186-199.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.