The Importance of Equine Dental Care

By Brandi Holohan, DVM, Pilchuck’s Equine Department

Horses have a dental arrangement unique to their species that requires regular maintenance and care.

Routine dental examinations are essential to your horse’s overall health, well-being and comfort. In general, our equine friends should have dental exams two times a year (or more, if deemed necessary by a veterinarian).

Oral exams should start at birth to identify any problems with how the teeth come together (dental occlusion). Some jaw conformation problems are best addressed when horses are very young.

Horses 1.5 to 5 years old may require more frequent dental care than older horses. This is 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 (baby) teeth and erupting 36 to 40 adult teeth! Dental care during this time may prevent training problems due to sharp teeth lacerating the tongue and cheeks.

In the young horse, caps (or “baby teeth”) need to be checked and removed if they have been retained to prevent misalignment of the adult teeth. Twice-yearly oral exams can spot any maleruption problems that may occur. Additionally, wolf teeth can be removed at this time to prevent interference with the bit.

In the middle-aged horse, regular dental exams are 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 not treated, periodontal disease will eventually lead to the loss of teeth.

A horse of any age can have a dental condition that may arise suddenly. Any abnormalities noted when your horse is eating warrant an oral examination by a veterinarian, including: slow eating, disinterest in one type of food, quidding (spitting out half-chewed wads of hay), spilling or dropping food, tipping the head to the 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 between the teeth.

Other signs that might point to a dental problem include: swelling of the face, jaw, or mouth tissues; blood from the mouth; excessive salivation; nasal discharge, often including a bad odor; facial muscle asymmetry; and loss of body condition.

With regular dental checkups, we can identify and address dental issues in our horses, such as abscesses, ulcers, loose teeth, infected teeth or gums, periodontal disease, and misalignment of teeth. These days, many horses are maintaining functional dentition into their third – and even forth – decades of life! And that’s something horse owners and their horses can both smile about.

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 or visit