Equine Dental Health and Performance

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By Brandi Holohan, DVM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital
Routine dental care is essential to your horse’s overall health and well-being. The goal of equine dentistry is to only remove excessive dental crown. 
  • In the young horse, caps or “baby teeth” need to be checked and removed if they have been retained prior to starting training. This prevents training problems due to sharp teeth lacerating the tongue and cheeks. Additionally, wolf teeth can be removed at this time to prevent interference with the bit. 
  • Horses aged 2 to 5 years may require more frequent dentals than older horses because the composition of their teeth tends to be softer, so they develop sharp enamel points faster. During this age range, they will also be shedding 24 deciduous teeth and erupting 36 to 40 adult teeth! Twice-yearly oral exams can spot any maleruption problems that may occur.  
  • In the middle-aged horse, a yearly dental exam is recommended to maintain dental alignment and to prevent and/or diagnose dental problems.
  • Senior horses are at a greater risk for developing periodontal disease. This is a painful, progressive disease of the oral tissues that can be treated and controlled if caught in time. If it is not treated, periodontal disease will eventually lead to loss of teeth. It is best to have twice-yearly dental exams, or more if deemed necessary by your horse’s veterinarian. Our goal is to prolong the functional grinding surface of the teeth. Many horses are now maintaining functional dentition into their third and even forth decades of life! 
  • Performance horses benefit greatly from routine dental care. Dental condition and alignment can make the difference between a horse that can perform to the best of his ability and one that balks, fusses and has trainability issues. If a horse has sharp enamel points, he is going to be in pain when asked to take contact and work in the bit/bridle. The sharp edges can dig into the cheeks and cause abrasion, ulcers and lacerations on the inside of the cheek. This may result in avoidance and inconsistent performance. If a horse has a malocclusion, hooks, ramps, excessive transverse ridges or steps, this will cause the horse to have a head carriage that is uncomfortable or that makes it physically difficult for the horse to carry himself in collection with the bridle. Some performance issues may be related to dental comfort and not a training problem. Routine dental care can help to maximize the horse’s potential to perform. 
What to watch for: A horse of any age can have a dental condition that may arise suddenly. There are some common signs to watch for, and any abnormalities noted when eating warrant an oral exam by your veterinarian. These include slow eating, disinterest in one type of food, quidding (spitting out half-chewed wads of hay), spilling or dropping food, tipping head to side, excessive yawning or tongue lolling, or choking. When riding, signs of discomfort to watch for include resistance to the bit or bridling, hypersensitivity in the bridle, head tossing, and holding the bit. Other abnormalities are swelling of the face, jaw or mouth tissues, blood from mouth, excessive salivation, nasal discharge often including a bad odor, facial muscle asymmetry, and loss of body condition. 

Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital offers both mobile and in-clinic equine dental care. To learn more about Pilchuck’s comprehensive equine services, call 360.568.3111.

This article appears in the December issue of the Washington State Quarter Horse Association newsletter.
Article added December 5, 2013