Is your equine friend having trouble gaining weight? Is your mare tossing her head when you ask her to go left? Is there more grain on the floor than in your horse’s stomach at the end of feeding? Read on for possible causes and solutions….
Over the past decade, great advances have been made in our understanding of equine dentistry. New tools and techniques are now available for examining, shaping, and pulling teeth, and improved methods of sedation and restraint allow for involved procedures to be done safely and humanely. Proper oral care of horses promotes health and longevity and is a key component of optimizing performance in all disciplines.
Horses have 36 permanent teeth. Twelve of them are incisors, seen in the front of the mouth, and they are used for grabbing food (and biting!!). It is the incisors that can help us estimate the age of a horse by their wear patterns. The other 24 chompers are referred to as cheek teeth or molars. These large teeth are roughly rectangular in shape, with broad chewing surfaces called “occlusive tables.” The first 12 molars (three on each side of the upper and lower jaws) are shed as caps during the first five years of life and replaced with permanent teeth. All permanent molars have very long roots that range between 2-1/2 to 3-1/2” in length. Over the course of a horse’s 25- to 35-year life span the molar cheek teeth wear down, but every year the roots erupt about 1/4” so that “new” tooth material constantly replaces the worn surface.
Ideally the occlusive tables of a horse’s mouth are relatively flat so that the hay and grain compressed between the molars during the chewing cycle is ground well. However, missing or broken teeth, skull conformation, uneven wear, and past trauma can create tables that are not good grinding surfaces, frequently causing discomfort and mouth ulceration. This can affect the horse’s behavior and food intake. Sometimes the tables become too angled, and feed is not effectively compressed (“Shear” mouth). Other times the surface is highly irregular, being interrupted by very tall or very short teeth (“Step” mouth) or a very irregular, wavy surface (“Wave” mouth). Ideally the upper and lower molars meet exactly, but in many horses the first upper cheek tooth is more forward that the lower one. Uneven wear then creates a kind of overhang called a hook. Correction of all these conditions is aimed at creating a comfortable mouth with a good grinding surface that will chew food well and carry a bit easily.
GVEC Can Help!
All our veterinarians are trained in equine dentistry and are highly skilled at using our state-of-the-art tools to take care of your horse’s oral needs throughout his or her life. If your horse has not had an oral exam within the past year, please call to schedule one today! Dental work takes 20 to 40 minutes per horse, and it can be done at your farm or at the clinic. We will give you detailed records that describe the particular conditions found in your horse’s mouth. Routine dental care results in happy horses with healthy mouths primed to promote LONG, productive lives! Here’s what’s involved:
A Thorough Dental Procedure
1. The horse is sedated to allow a full examination of the mouth and procedures to be performed in a safe, thorough manner. An oral speculum is placed between the teeth so that the mouth can be opened easily. The horse’s head is comfortably elevated. The speculum is opened and the oral cavity is rinsed, and a light is used to thoroughly inspect all tables and teeth.
2. Using a combination of hand and/or power tools, the veterinarian shapes, files, and in some cases cuts or pulls teeth to create a comfortable mouth that is shaped for maximum efficiency in grinding food and carrying a bit.
3. The horse is evaluated for teeth that are loose or need to be removed. Young horses often have small, non-functional “wolf teeth” in front of their molars, which are usually removed before training begins. Horses in their 20s and 30s often have teeth that are loose, fractured, and decayed. Teeth in geriatric patients can often be pulled with simple hand tools because their roots are short. Extraction in young horses is more complex because the roots are very long and firmly attached in the jaw.
4. The incisor bite is evaluated, and the grinding motion of the molars is checked. Special procedures may be necessary to correct an uneven bite and assure efficient grinding capacity.
Timetable for Routine Dental Examination and Treatment
Birth: Check mouth for bite abnormalities and palate defects.
68 Months: All incisors should be erupted. Check for bite abnormalities. Exam can be done during one of the first vaccination visits.
1624 Months: Check for wolf teeth; extract when detected. Check for points and hooks; float as needed. Create modified bit seat on horses going into training.
23 Years: Check again for wolf teeth. Check for eruption/impaction of the central incisors and front cheek teeth. Remove wolf teeth and loose or impacted caps. Float points and hooks and maintain or create bit seat.
34 Years: Check for retained temporary incisors and caps; remove if needed. Check for points and hooks; float as needed. Check the size and shape of the lower jaw.
5 Years and Older: Perform thorough visual and digital oral examination annually. Check for abnormal wear, points, hooks, table occlusion, loose or fractured teeth, and lateral jaw excursion.