9 questions you always wanted answered about your horse’s teeth

  • The treatment of horses’ teeth moves forward at a rapid pace, yet sometimes the simplest procedure can cause concern. Our vets and equine dental technicians answer some of the most common questions

    1. Can dental issues be linked directly to poor performance?

    ANSWER Yes. When a horse is uncomfortable he may hold his head in an unnatural position, which can cause pain in the poll, neck and back. When a horse is asked to work in an outline, he needs to be able to work comfortably in the vertical head position. This means the lower jaw moves forwards slightly due to the change in body position, so it’s important to make sure there are no overgrowths that would affect this. A tight noseband may make this more uncomfortable for a horse. There is a view that rounding off the front of the second pre-molars helps to reduce discomfort — the so-called bit seat.

    2. Is it true that regular dental treatment can reduce the risk of colic?

    ANSWER Yes. Horses and ponies who have their teeth checked regularly have been shown to be at reduced risk of colic caused by large colon impaction/distension. But it is important not to over rasp the teeth, as that may make it hard for the horse to eat and could cause colic.

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    3. I think my horse has tooth problems but I’m not certain. Is a horse suffering from dental pain easy to identify?

    ANSWER No. A horse’s natural chewing action may change in response to pain, but obvious signs of discomfort may not be apparent.

    They can adjust their chewing patterns to adapt to dental pain, often to the point where owners are unaware that there is a problem.

    When they eventually show the problem, it may be too late to treat. Meanwhile, the result is the abnormal wearing of the teeth, which may eventually result in severe overgrowths and other painful dental disease.

    However the good news is that early intervention, through regular veterinary checks and careful rasping may well prevent many future dental issues.

    Slow eating, dropping food (quidding) and bad breath are all signs of possible dental pain and should be looked into immediately.

    4. What is the pulp in a horse’s tooth?

    ANSWER The pulp is the term applied to the internal blood and nerve supply to a horse’s tooth. We have always known that horse’s teeth have a blood and nerve supply that enters at the root (apex) and travels up inside the tooth. But the numbers, distribution and interconnections of these vital structures inside a tooth and how they change with age are still being investigated.

    These pulps are numerous and communicate with the dentine of the tooth, meaning that equine teeth are very much living structures, to be respected and preserved where possible. If we rasp more than 3-4mm off the surface of a horse’s tooth, we can expose these pulps and potentially cause irreparable damage.

    5. Why do we need to rasp teeth?

    ANSWER A horse’s tooth and root are several inches long. Each tooth continues to erupt through the gum at a rate of 3mm per year on average, with more tooth emerging in the younger horse.

    Horses were originally designed to eat coarse vegetation for 18-20 hours per day. The modern horse, however, is largely fed on lush grass and soft hay and their chewing time has changed with the different diet. Another factor is horses eating with their head up, for example munching hay nets can alter tooth wear.

    These changes produce extremely sharp points which can damage the soft tissues within the mouth and need to be removed by rasping.

    6. My EDT (equine dental technician) has referred my horse to the vet for an X-ray. Why is it necessary to X-ray a horse’s teeth?

    ANSWER Traditional oral examinations can only show about one-tenth of the horse’s tooth. In some cases changes in horse’s teeth can be picked up through a thorough oral examination with sedation, while with use of a dental mirror and more sophisticated techniques, oral endoscopy (examination by camera) shows us a clearer magnified view of the teeth.

    Such examinations, however, will only show the part of the tooth visible in the mouth — the clinical crown. To assess the remaining tooth, many vets now use digital X-rays and, in some cases a CT (computerized tomography) scan or a combination of both of these to examine the tooth beneath the gum.

    7. Is sedation a requirement of dental treatment?

    ANSWER No. Unless, for some reason, a horse takes a severe aversion to the routine process, sedation is completely unnecessary. However, in cases requiring motorized equipment or where a detailed diagnotic assessment is necessary, judicious use of sedation under vet supervision is appropriate.

    8. How do I care for my veteran’s teeth?

    ANSWER Equine teeth continue to erupt until around 18 years of age. The older horse needs to be treated with caution because, unlike young animals, their cheek teeth have stopped growing and there is no reserve crown left, so any tooth rasped away will never be replaced.

    As the horse ages molars eventually wear out and become level with the gums — this is sometimes called “cupping” or expired teeth. Once this has occurred the horse will require special dietary management. Horses can also develop gaps between their teeth, known as diastema. These gaps become impacted with food, which can lead to painful gingivitis.

    9. My horse is about to have a filling. What will be used?

    ANSWER Some cavities in horse’s teeth are suitable for filling to prevent further decay, fracture or root infection. Modern human filling materials — tooth coloured and mercury free — are usually used for the fillings.

    This article was first published in Horse & Hound Ask The Vet (Spring 2012)

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