Equine Dentistry

By Brandi Holohan, DVM, Equine General Practitioner, Dentistry and Reproduction, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

In the world of human medicine, we are just beginning to realize the impact of oral health on a patient’s overall well-being. Likewise, when it comes to our horses, many of us would do well to pay closer attention to their teeth. Routine dental care is an often neglected but essential component to maintaining your horse’s health.

Why Horses Need Dentistry

Horses evolved to graze for 17 or more hours each day on pastures where forage varied in texture and moisture content. We have modified the horse’s diet and eating pattern through domestication and confinement. Modern horses are fed hay and a concentrate (such as pellets or grain) which are very soft compared to the forage their teeth are suited for. Softer feeds require less chewing, which may result in the horse’s teeth becoming long or wearing unevenly. Foraging in green grass, which has a high moisture content, is also beneficial for oral cleansing, but even pastured horses are not immune to dental problems.

Today we demand more from our performance horses and start working them at a younger age than ever before in history. Meeting these demands requires that our horses are in optimal health. Further, we rarely consider dental health characteristics when selecting breeding animals, meaning that a propensity for dental problems can persist through generations. These factors make proper dental care even more critical.

Why Horses Need Dentistry

Horses evolved to graze for 17 or more hours each day on pastures where forage varied in texture and moisture content. We have modified the horse’s diet and eating pattern through domestication and confinement. Modern horses are fed hay and a concentrate (such as pellets or grain) which are very soft compared to the forage their teeth are suited for. Softer feeds require less chewing, which may result in the horse’s teeth becoming long or wearing unevenly. Foraging in green grass, which has a high
moisture content, is also beneficial for oral cleansing, but even pastured horses are not immune to dental problems.

Today we demand more from our performance horses and start working them at a younger age than ever before in history. Meeting these demands requires that our horses are in optimal health. Further, we rarely consider dental health characteristics when selecting breeding animals, meaning that a propensity for dental problems can persist through generations. These factors make proper dental care even more critical.

Common Problems

The most common dental problem experienced by horses is the formation of enamel points on the edges of teeth. These points form naturally over time by the grinding motion of chewing, but they can cause lacerations of the inner cheek, soft palate, and the tongue. Other malocclusions can include hooks, ramps, and excessive transverse ridges forming on the upper and lower cheek teeth, as well as more complex problems like wave mouth or step mouth, which results in an uneven or abnormal bite plane.

Sometimes a horse may retain some deciduous teeth even after permanent teeth have emerged. In most cases these teeth will eventually shed on their own, but if they are causing discomfort or are retained for too long, your veterinarian may remove them to prevent displacement or impaction of permanent teeth. Your veterinarian may also remove “wolf teeth.” Wolf teeth are not the same as canines—they are premolars that, like wisdom teeth in humans, are vestigial and may only appear on the top jaw or may not appear at all. Though wolf teeth are not necessarily a problem for the 13% to 32% of horses that have them, they can interfere with the bit due to the eruption location.

Horses may also suffer from infected teeth or gums, including periodontal disease and tooth root infections. Senior horses (17 years or older) are at greater risk for periodontal disease. It is important to maintain an even bite plane during a horse’s teen years in order to ensure a functional grinding surface beyond age 20. As our ability to correct malocclusions is dependent on the ongoing eruption of the crown, alignment correction is not always possible beyond that age if tooth surfaces are excessively and/or unevenly worn.

Signs of a Dental Problem

Even with regular preventive maintenance, owners should watch for signs of dental problems that result from an injury or develop over time. Sometimes horses will show obvious signs—like facial swelling, draining facial wounds, or a change in facial symmetry. Less obvious physical indications of dental problems include: loss of feed from the mouth while eating (quidding); difficulty chewing or excessive salivation; large, undigested feed particles in manure; accumulation of balls of forage between the teeth and cheek; holding the head in odd positions while eating; or a bad odor from the mouth or nostrils.

Not every horse will display signs of pain and irritation. But sudden changes in behavior or trainability may be related to dental pain or other medical problems. Keep an eye out for changes in feeding habits, weight loss, and bitting or bridling problems. If your horse exhibits any of these signs, it’s a good idea to schedule an oral examination. Although you may be able to identify dental problems in your horse, it’s not recommended that you attempt treatment yourself. Unlike other health problems for which home remedies may be appropriate, most equine dental procedures irreversibly change the horse’s teeth, so only a veterinarian should perform any dental treatment.

Regular dental care not only makes your horse more comfortable, it can also improve feed utilization and, in turn, help your horse perform better and even live longer.