The Importance of a Good Dental Exam – Say Ahh

Dr. Caity Cosentino

Although most of our horses aren’t drinking soda and eating candy, they can still suffer from dental diseases that are not that different to our own. Adult horses have on each side of their mouth, in each arcade, 3 incisors, 3 premolars, and 3 molars. Some horses will also have canine teeth for a total of 36-40 teeth. Horse’s mouths are constantly changing as they age. Unlike permanent teeth in humans, horses have teeth that are constantly erupting as they are gradually worn down with use. The upper jaw, maxilla, of a horse is wider than the lower jaw, or mandible. Horses chew in a figure eight pattern, grinding the food thoroughly before swallowing. The combination of the way they chew and their anatomy can cause enamel points to form on the outside, near the cheeks, of the upper teeth, and the inside, near the tongue, on the lower teeth. These points can become very sharp and create ulcerations in the soft tissues, causing them discomfort. If a horse’s jaws do not align perfectly lengthwise, hooks may form on the front premolars or back molars as well altering the way your horse is able to use his mouth. Hooks and points are easily reduced during a routine dental exam and float. If addressed on an annual basis, they can be kept in check to prevent the ulcerations from forming and to maintain the horse’s grinding efficiency.

Other common dental problems horses encounter include gum disease, fractures, tooth root abscesses, cavities, uneven wear, wave mouths, and gaps between teeth. As a horse becomes geriatric some of their teeth may become worn to the point where they are flat to the gum with little to no grinding surface. All of these conditions require monitoring and some sort of treatment or care. Signs your horse may need to have a dental exam include quidding (dropping clumps of food, usually forage), chewing sideways, playing with the bit, nasal discharge (especially one sided), swellings in the jaw, decrease in appetite, weight loss, or odor from the mouth. A thorough exam is often going to require sedation for the horse to allow for a speculum to be used to hold open their mouth and to access the molars in the back. Sometimes radiographs are required to assess the structure of teeth and to identify fractures and abscesses. The creation of power floats for horses has made it more efficient, less traumatic and a more accurate way to work on each individual tooth to provide for better care. For a horse with a normal healthy mouth, it is recommended to have their mouth examined once a year to note any changes and maintain the natural points that form. For older horses with dental disease or horses who have had teeth extracted in the past, it may be necessary to have a dental exam done every 6 months. It is always a good idea to have your geriatric horse’s teeth checked in the fall, to make sure their mouth is healthy going into the winter when it can be more difficult to maintain their weight. Your veterinarian can help you come up with a dental plan that fits your horse’s individual needs.

Sometimes a horse’s mouth can be forgotten in the day to day of routine care as it is not something many people look at, or pay attention to, unless they notice a problem, but dental care for them is just as important as routine dental care is for us. A well cared for mouth can often help prevent problems from developing and if a problem is caught early it is often easier to address. If routine dental care is not a normal component to your annual health care routine, consider adding it. A healthy mouth makes for a happy horse!